Me.gov: Blogging the Personal Democracy Forum

By , 30 June, 2009, No Comment

I’ve spent part of the last two days at the annual conference of the Personal Democracy Forum, attending a few panels and talks about how technology is changing politics and where new online media and news models fit into that new political universe. A few selected highlights:

danah boyd is an academic ethnographer who took a job as an in-house researcher for Microsoft. I wrote about her work for BusinessWeek two years ago, and in large part, she is still making the same argument. New media evangelists, she says, tout technological access as the great equalizer–once everyone has access to the web, everyone is hooked up to shared information. But in reality, once we get online, we connect and share with those we already socialize with in the physical world or at least those from our social milieu.

According to boyd, upper-middle-class folk are on Facebook and LinkedIn; lower-middle class folk are on MySpace. There’s an age and race component to this, she says: the upper-middle class folk are predominantly white, and usually older. Even the upper-middle class teens tend to think of themselves as “older” or more “adult” than their lower-middle class, MySpace, peers and in general, upper-middle class communities tend to value children growing up before their time. Here’s what alarms her: this problem gets worse as you get older and spend more time in the internet’s ideological echochamber. Wired adults are the least likely group to know people different from themselves, so instead of bringing people together, the internet might be hardening silos and making us all more alone. I think she’s basically right and that those of us in the tech world have overstated the power of connectivity. But most of the audience of citizen-activists was more skeptical. One of the neat things about the conference was the screen they had in back projecting, live, what people were tweeting about the presenters. Here’s the feed, scroll down to about 11:00am on Monday, June 29th to see some of the thoughts on boyd.

Jeff Jarvis is no stranger to readers of this blog and he gave his usual schtick about applying the Google model to all industries and sectors, including Google-y government. But then he went on to say the core of the model would be government transparency, a state that makes all its activities public, searchable, linkable and micro-manageable by citizens. In other words, we’d sign online and be able to have California-style referenda on everything government does. He also believes this would involve letting government work in beta, giving them “permission to fail,” and thus license to experiment and innovate. Bureaucrats, he says, are so afraid of failure that nothing ever changes. This is probably true, but as one audience member pointed out during Q&A;, government can’t screw up something like natural disaster relief and then say, “Oh, but that was just beta FEMA, the real one is coming.” Also, and Jarvis never properly addresses this issue, Google is about the least transparent thing out there–it asks a helluva lot of transparency of us, but it never shows its cards. And tech-evangelists seem to speak similarly about government: we should be able to see everything, there should be no backrooms, but don’t you dare wiretap us. I am of the opposite school, fiercely opposed to privacy invasions like wiretapping, but also quite happy to have some parts of the Washington sausage factory kept offline.

The third highlight was a panel today about how the internet is changing journalism and how the new journalism might fulfill its watchdog role within the citizen-governed society (I wonder why no one calls this vision what it is: extreme libertarianism). Clay Shirky was supposed to be there, but didn’t show; instead we got Frank Rich, Karen Tumulty, Scott Simon, and Dan Gillmor. It quickly became a back-and-forth between Rich, as the tech-skeptic and Gillmor as the evangelist, with Simon trying to play the role of mediator as Tumulty kept mostly quiet.

Rich’s skepticism echoed some of what I’ve been saying here but went further than I would go. He believes (1) that the best reporting comes from people who do it full-time, covering a beat, and that this costs money; (2) that new media reporting often becomes reporting about the power of new media itself-Rich’s ex: all the posts about how Twitter was saving Iran overshadowed the real story, that people were repressed and that the protests were failing-; (3) that most people don’t go out and check a hundred different blogs the way citizen-media evangelists claim the web “empowers” them to do, only middle class folk do that, everyone else has a job that doesn’t involve sitting at a computer all day and they expect some filtering. So this niche bottom-up news universe just means they will flock to an aggregator who gives them news to fit their existing presumptions and makes it more likely they will have the wool pulled over their eyes without being encouraged to see counterarguments.

Gillmor’s evangelism set off most of my knee-jerk reactions. He believes (1) that individual charitable donations to niche news organizations can finance beat reporting about everything under the sun done piecemeal by citizens, not professionals; (2) people will still read aggregators they agree with, for kicks, but most people will actually get their news from the raw data anyway; so intelligent aggregation, ie the analysis of professional journalism, is a goner. Unlike Gillmor, I think that’s a disastrous place to be headed, but I’m not yet convinced that’s where it’s going.

Simon’s middle ground was to paint citizen-media as just high tech versions of the public square. For example, at NPR, he uses Twitter to get comments and feedback from listeners (ie doing a story on immigrants, he tweets out to get examples of immigrant families to profile for human interest), but he doesn’t see it as a source of verifiable news. In what I consider the quote of the day, he says, “social media shows the conversations people are having with each other.” It’s not yet an especially good way for news organizations to converse with their audience. Unfortunately, for journalism to have any real role in democracy, it needs to do something more than replicate our living room conversations.

As fasincating as these two days were, I left thinking more or less what I thought before: that unless or until we get a business model for media and an active defense of social and political institutions, the Internet is just a fast train to “liberal-tarianism.”

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