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Thursday
Feb052009

Technology Hasn't Given Us a "Direct Democracy" - Yet

By Dennis D. McDonald

Chris Cizilla’s White House Cheat Sheet: Bypassing the Media Filter is an oversimplification of the shifting role of social media in politics. He makes the usual “Obama is using social media to bypass the mainstream media to go directly to voters” comment, which I think misses the point.

Sure, Obama sends messages out directly. But there’s little difference between an Obama YouTube video and a Bush radio address. They’re both mass-produced one-way broadcast messages.

So is a mass e-mailing. There’s nothing personal about that. My act of choosing to read an email from Obama or Biden from a list of dozens or hundreds of others is just as much an act of of “filtering” on my part as is a newspaper editor’s decision about which page or section to run a story in. It’s all part of a selection process that involves many different people.

And that’s really the point that matters here. Obama may send out a mass emailing to his email list, but the real action that matters is going to take place at the grassroots level. That’s where organization, community, personal relationships, loyalties, and willingness-to-volunteer come in.

One of the most significant stories I’ve read recently about the fundamentally changing role of technology in politics was last week’s Well-Connected Parents Take On School Boards; Web-Savvy Activists Push For Educational Change, a story in the January 30, 2009 Washington Post by Michael Alison Chandler. The gist of the story is that organized parents who want to push an agenda with local school systems can use web based communication and social media for organizing and pressing for change.

So what, you say? Isn’t that just an example of “democracy in action?” I think it is, but a fundamental reality is that this can be viewed as another case of the “rich getting richer.” People who know how to use the technology are in a better position to use it as a tool to help them get what they want.

But hasn’t that always been the case? When the printing press was invented, some political forces felt threatened since anyone could now print and distribute information to promote a viewpoint, even though the technology of printing was still highly specialized and available to a few. Over time printing spread and in many societies did become a force for political change available to many — as is the case now with the web and social media.

Back to Obama’s use of social media and the web. The new administration would be severely mistaken if it believes its semi-direct, technology-enabled communication links with individual voters is like a “switch” it can turn on and off at will to create specific actions. There are just too many different messages, communities, and interests out there for that to happen.

The real challenges, as I wrote in Eight Reality Checkpoints for Using “New Social Media” In Government, are these:

  • We need to accommodate citizens who are not digitally literate.
  • We must recognize that resistance is real and potentially legitimate.
  • We need honesty about the costs and complexity of engaging large numbers of people in meaningful dialog on potentially complex and time consuming topics.

Copyright (c) 2008-2009 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dr. McDonald is an Alexandria Virginia based management consultant and can be reached via the contact information provided here.

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