David Bollier

As the Obama phenomenon moves from campaigning to governance, the future of citizenship and governance could turn on how the President-Elect chooses to exploit the vast database of donors, volunteers and supporters he has amassed over the past 21 months. Obama’s unprecedented campaign gathered some 10 million email addresses and the names of more than 3.1 million donors – a sufficiently important resource that the database has been used as loan collateral.

But what will become of this resource and the potential political energies it represents? The Washington Post reports today, “Obama aides and allies are preparing a major expansion of the White House communications operation, enabling them to reach out directly to the supporters they have collected over 21 months without having to go through the mainstream media.”


Photo by tsevis, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

I wonder: Will the people on these lists be treated as a claque of loyalists who will be fed Pavlovian directives of the sort that Rush Limbaugh issues to his “dittoheads”? Or will Obama allow his millions of supporters to mature into a community of citizens who, while obviously sympathetic, will be allowed to deliberate among themselves, disagree with the administration and even publicly challenge the president? Obama frequently said that the campaign was about “you.” We will soon find out what he really meant.

Of course, all politicians claim to represent their followers, and in a crude sense, most usually do. But now that novel digital platforms make it possible for leaders and their followers to have highly fluid, real-time interactions — and for citizens to organize themselves in effective ways — the networked environment is changing how political leadership works. What will Obama make of this new frontier?

What, then, of the millions of Obama supporters who are already digitally implicated in the Obama presidency? What is the future of this “community”?

For years Internet users have been out-maneuvering their offline counterparts in one arena after another. It started with software development – think Linux and open source – and then blogs and social networking began to radically change Web content; remix artists and playlist amateurs enlivened the music scene; YouTube and imitators changed the video ecology; and citizen-journalism and other upstarts up-ended the mainstream media. Users working through open platforms and self-organized commons tend to act more rapidly, improvise more effectively and gather better on-the-ground knowledge than those who rely upon centralized hierarchies and credentialed experts. It’s the Web 2.0 revolution.

What, then, of the millions of Obama supporters who are already digitally implicated in the Obama presidency? What is the future of this “community”?

Given the proper cyber-platform, they could be transformed into a powerful source of bottom-up citizen innovation and action. If organized in an open-source fashion, they could be a vehicle for identifying and developing new ideas, and for self-organizing people to tackle needs that aren’t even perceived by Washington. Obama “followers” could become leaders in their own right, challenging the entrenched crew of credentialed Washington insiders to wake up and see the real world. This has always been the role ordained for citizens by democracy theory – to act as the civic agents of democratic policymaking. But of course, this theory has rarely been actualized very well.

Now, as Obama contemplates the design of his presidency, he would do well to consider the digital architecture of his Internet platform and digital communications. I don’t mean this in the strict technical sense (although that matters, too, obviously), but in the political sense. Will the campaign’s former army of campaigners have the “space” in the new White House Web apparatus to assert their voices freely and self-organize? Or will citizens be invited only as guests in a walled-garden White House whose political agenda has already been forged by the insiders?

Obama faces the same challenge that faces the industrial-era business executive trying to make an old business model work well in the open networked environment. The CEO wants to reap the benefits of large networks of people who can generate enormous “socially created value” through online platforms. But the CEO doesn’t really want to relinquish that much control, either. After all, leadership in the American government – or virtually any organization – requires a certain consolidation of power and strategic leadership. The effectiveness of the bottom-up “anarchy” on open platforms seems so counter-intuitive as to be impossible. And yet the open source model works, and can work very well, and is arguably what we most need at this time when democratic practice is so weak.

According to the Washington Post, the Obama team is still deliberating how to design the new White House “communications” system. But here is what is known:

“….the president-elect’s “Web site”: http://www.change.gov transition features a blog and a suggestion form, signaling the kinds of direct and instantaneous interaction that the Obama administration will encourage, perhaps with an eye toward turning its following into the biggest special-interest group in Washington.

Once Obama is sworn in, those backers may be summoned to push reluctant members of Congress to support legislation, to offer feedback on initiatives and to enlist in administration-supported causes in local communities. Obama would also be positioned to ask his supporters to back his favored candidates with fundraising and turnout support in the 2010 midterm elections.”

The Obama White House has other options. It could set up an affiliated nonprofit that would “geo-target” its supporters to solicit donations to political allies. It could run ads alongside online news articles in the style of Google ads. It could use personal information about citizen’s interests to target niche groups of citizens in order to galvanize their support for a given issue.

These are both exciting and ominous developments. Exciting, because they offer new ways for a sitting President to advance his legislative agenda and to influence public opinion. Ominous, because they could be used to manipulate the formation of public opinion and political action in more powerful ways than we have ever seen, to the exclusion of worthy alternatives.

There is a long tradition of political parties using technological innovation to secure new political advantages. Think how Richard Viguerie brilliantly used computerized mailing lists to invent direct mail fundraising in the 1970s. This innovation helped create what was then called the New Right. Building on the brilliant Web 2.0 innovations developed during his campaign, Obama’s new socio-technological infrastructure could reinvent political leadership and citizenship in one fell swoop.

One can imagine that the Obama tech advantage could become so overwhelming – millions of names, lots of personalized data, sophisticated networking tools – that few newcomers would be able to rival it.

If taken to new levels of refinement, and applied to the challenge of governing – and not just fundraising and volunteering – the Obama administration may not only fortify its political game, it could dominate national politics for years to come. In the tech world, the “first mover” – the one who gets into the new technology first and thereby learns how to exploit it best – tends to dominate that market sector. Anyone wishing to start up a business today to compete with Google, Amazon or eBay can forget it.

One can imagine that the Obama tech advantage could become so overwhelming – millions of names, lots of personalized data, sophisticated networking tools – that few newcomers would be able to rival it. At this moment of triumph against the dark Bush years, a time of justifiable celebration, it may seem ill-tempered to entertain such possibiities. The administration that has not even taken office, for godsake.

But as any software designer knows, the early decisions can have far-reaching ramifications. The “political architecture” of the new White House digital communications apparatus could have significant implications for how millions of Obama supporters will engage with the administration and government.

If done right, the Obama it could unleash an open-source renaissance of citizenship – a new participatory arena for all Americans to engage with their government, collaborate with their fellow citizens, volunteer in their communities and incubate new ideas. Or the Obama White House could give us a more closed, walled-garden of control – a place that enables modest citizen participation and debate, but really is more intent on projecting its own top-down messages as powerfully as possible – and on containing dissent.

The Web 2.0 universe is still new enough that it is not clear exactly how the White House should proceed. But we do know enough about open platforms and open source software – not to mention the value of the First Amendment – to know that President Obama will be best-served by hosting a Web system that is as open and participatory as possible. Reinvigorating genuine citizenship in the Internet age may be the only thing that can prevent another recurrence of the Bush years.

Let’s start by codifying net neutrality for the Internet and imposing other safeguards to assure that citizens will retain their sovereignty on the Internet. And then let’s invent new forms of open citizen engagement with elected leaders and government. Now is a great time to inaugurate a new paradigm of citizenship.

David Bollier is the editor of OntheCommons.org, an activist and writer about the commons, and author of Silent Theft, Brand Name Bullies and Viral Spiral (forthcoming). This post originally appeared on ONTHECOMMONS.ORG

Copyright 2008 David Bollier

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