My friend Jimmy Wales has a history of taking on impossible tasks. As he admits, the idea behind Wikipedia is pretty crazy, and despite the success of the project, Jimmy is very clear that he doesn’t entirely understand just what’s going on: “I was not and I still am not smart enough to figure out how to make Wikipedia work. The Wikipedians figured that out…”
While this may well be crazy, I do think Jimmy’s got a good grasp on one of the main problems of politics – the ways we as citizens are informed about issues and candidates. “Broadcast media brought us broadcast politics. And let’s be simple and bluntly honest about it, left or right, conservative or liberal, broadcast politics are dumb, dumb, dumb.”
Jimmy’s hope is that new media – especially blogs and wikis – can encourage an examination of issues that’s more substantive and engaged than we see in broadcast media. Rather than forcing candidates into shaping sound bytes and images for television broadcast, will campaigns share more information and policy ideas with engaged individuals discussing and debating these issues online? (Or is this the failed Dean Dream revived in another medium?)
Wikipedia – at its best – invites people with divergent political opinions to agree on a common set of facts. This doesn’t always work well – the list of controversial issues on wikipedia suggests that the sorts of issues that get debated all the time in political campaigns are those that are difficult to write a neutral Wikipedia article on. (The wikipedia definition of a controversial issue is a wonderful one: “A controversial issue is one where its related articles are constantly being re-edited in a circular manner, or is otherwise the locus of edit warring.”)
But I can imagine the parties in a local political race going through the difficult process of editing each others plkatform statements to the point where we had a genuine disagreement over policy, rather than disagreements over posturing and positioning. (I have a harder time imaginging this happening in the US presidential election, for instance.)
Whether it works immediately, in the long term, or fails utterly, it should be fun to watch.