Friday, December 12, 2008

Obama is "Open for Questions" Online, and Not Everyone Likes It...

Another initiative has been launched by President-Elect Obama in his campaign to use the internet to improve government.

A pilot program called "Open for Questions" was just created on his transition team's Change.gov website. The idea behind it is to allow ordinary citizens to post questions that they want the president to address, and also to let all citizens vote on which existing questions they think are the best. In Web circles, this is modeled on Digg's system of using voting-based mechanisms to decide which stories (or, in this case, questions) come to the forefront.

Right now, take a look at this link and see which questions people have voted for the most.

Immediately, both the benefits and drawbacks of using such a voting-based system become apparent. The benefits are that the system becomes more democratic as ordinary folks are granted some power over decision-making, rather than elite gatekeepers, and ideally could even play a greater role in setting the agenda. The drawbacks, as are clearly demonstrated, are that the questions ultimately asked are not necessarily of, shall we say, a serious or vital nature.

For example, according to how people voted this week, the #1 issue the president ought to address is, "Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?".

While I don't mean to downplay or denigrate marijuana legalization as a political issue to its supporters, almost everyone would agree that it's probably not the single most important challenge that this nation currently faces. More significantly, it's selection as the top vote-getter only serves to highlight the flaws of such voting-based systems.

The most obvious flaw of such systems is that it underplays the role of expertise. Poll after national poll shows that the financial crisis is the greatest concern on Americans' minds right now, yet because the ordinary citizen doesn't have substantial expertise on topics like financial derivatives, they are less likely to post questions on the topic or vote in favor of them. This, as a consequence, skews the results.

Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest flaw is an ideological one. As Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins writes, netizens have for years clinged to a belief in "The Wisdom of Crowds" - meaning that collective, disorganized group decisions lead to better results than decisions made by one or two people who are actually in positions of authority. Thus were born websites like Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon.

However, the "wisdom of crowds" only works if individuals act independently from one another, and the history of social media websites proves that this isn't typically the case. More often, "bury brigades" begin to form whereby individuals collectively mobilize in order to make their voices louder and more important than the rest. And this skews the results as well.

Considering that the people most likely to already be using the "Open for Questions" website are tech-savvy teenagers and young adults in their twenties, that puts the selection of the marijuana issue in a bit more context.

Ultimately, it would be wise to remember that "Open for Questions" remains only a pilot program and is not playing any role in governing the nation. Its sole intention at this point is to be one part of a larger effort to test what uses of technology might be helpful governmental tools; and perhaps offer citizens more avenues for participation and ways to feel involved. These are noble goals, and, again, the incoming Administration is showing some real chops by simply having a willingness to try new things out. That willingness, coupled with a seemingly advanced Internet-generation mentality, bodes well of more things to come.
  

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