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Open for Questions: Participation, from campaigning to governing

Our conversation this morning at the Berkman conference on Internet and Politics has ticked off my colleagues Yochai Benkler and Eszter Hargittai. Eszter reminds us that it’s a mistake to talk about internet users as a single group. There’s a broad range of skill levels and ability to participate online, even in the subset of Americans who’ve got broadband access. There’s a tendency to oversimplify the discussion and assume that everyone in the grassroots can participate in online discussions – building online platforms for particiation may lead to a situation where only a subset of voices are represented.

Yochai’s pushback is more direct – he’s worried that discussions on the internet and politics are simply discussions on the internet and campaigning. He’s interested in the network public sphere – the conversations taking place in political blogospheres, on the left and the right, where participants collectively work to set the agenda. Politics is more than mobilizing people for the next battle – it’s about creating a space to debate the agenda. Joseph Nye summarizes Yochai’s points by asking how we involve participation while transitioning from salesmanship to governing.

While the academics argue the point on stage, the Obama transition team has introduced one of the more interesting tools I’ve seen to enable participation in the governing process. The website has a new feature – Open For Questions – which invites people to suggest questions the Obama transition team should answer. Users vote on these questions, deciding whether they’re worth asking the team or not. (You’ve got a third option to skip the questions, which the system charmingly responds to by registering your “Meh” vote.)

The system runs on Google’s Moderator platform, a very clever tool that allows a group of people to offer suggestions and prioritze them as a group. The platform apparently launched a couple of hours ago, and already 811 people have posted 471 questions and cast over 24,000 votes. The questions are pretty smart thus far, and I’ve been surprised at people’s willingness to vote on hard, geeky questions. (I posted a question on agricultural subsidies and was amazed to see it get a couple dozen votes within a few minutes.)

There are lots of challenges to building a tool like this well. Popular questions will tend to cascade, and since there’s no disincentive to vote for questions, the result is likely to be an impossibly huge set of questions for the transition team. But it’s very cool to see the transition team moving quickly to offer people a way to raise their voices and ask some questions. Does this suggest we might see President Obama try something like a Prime Minister’s Questions period?