Participation Through Publication

As communication online continues to grow we must ensure that there are solid tools providing all with the ability to publish their voice. The ability to make one’s opinions known in a public forum is a requirement of a democratic political system. This right can be traced all the way back to Athenian democracy. Under this system all citizens came together in the Ekklesia to discuss and vote on issues of political importance.1 This can be seen in traditional spaces like town hall meetings, political rallies, and in newspaper editorial sections. The expansion of a desire to make one’s opinions known online signals the most recent manifestation of citizens’ desire to make their thoughts known in a public forum.

The current software available to people wanting to publish online allows for remarkably powerful publishing to occur. Numerous professional-level platforms are offered to any user for free. These tools allow for users to publish their thoughts through free and easy to use software in a public-by-default manner. Furthermore, a growing selection of tools allow for people to publish to a global audience from nearly anywhere. A stationary location with a full-featured computer is increasingly no longer a necessity to partake in online publishing. The ability to publish has been extended to anybody with a mobile phone.

The modern tools that have been developed for publishing online give more people a greater ability to make their voice heard from an expanding range of places. WordPress and Twitter take the ability to publish online and make it something that is accessible to a greater portion of the population. The political potential of the millions of people expressing their voice online can have a tremendous expansionary effect on participation in United States politics.

Pushing publication with modern technology

The roots of making publishing available to all online users go back to the mid 1980s and are most recently seen in the development around blogging software. One of the earliest platforms for online communication and publication dates back to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL). In From Counterculture to Cyberculture Fred Turner describes the WELL as,

a teleconferencing system within which subscribers could dial up a central computer and type messages to one another in either asynchronous or real-time conversations.2

Early platforms like the WELL represent initial attempts at leveraging online publishing for political gain. While important for their historical influence these early platforms are far less politically significant than the more mature modern tools. An important distinction between the WELL and later technologies like Blogger, WordPress, and Twitter is that the WELL took an approach that more closely resembled a membership forum and was less of a direct mirror of public conversations. People could join forums oriented around topics and converse with one another there but ultimately conversations remained within the WELL.

Blogging takes a fundamentally different approach to communication online. Popular blogging software like Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, Twitter, and others make content public by default and any person connected to the internet can discover the content published on those platforms. There is no requirement to log in to a closed system to read what others are saying. Furthermore, authors can allow anyone to comment on articles. This expands the potential pool of conversants to anyone with an email address, the one general requirement for commenting.

Software such as Blogger and LiveJournal made blogging a popular tool that became available to millions of users. While both of these products made the important leap of extending the ability to publish online to millions of users they are not the focus of this essay. These early blogging platforms provided an important foundation, but modern day software like WordPress and Twitter provide greater political potential.

WordPress refers to two software platforms that collectively hold tremendous potential for expanding political participation in the United States. Founded by Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little in 2003, WordPress was initially developed as an open source blogging platform that was made free for anyone to download and install on their own web server. This technology has continued to be developed as an open source content management system. In 2005 Mullenweg founded the company Automattic, which serves to take the underlying technology of WordPress and offer it as a hosted platform available for free to any user with an email address. The open source and hosted platform are very similar in feature set and, for the purposes of this discussion, only differ substantially in terms of the skill set required of a user for initial set up.

This close similarity in code base between the open source and hosted platforms means that the same core technology powers everything from small blogs like this one to blogs at CNN, BBC, and Dow Jones. Furthermore, the nature of open source allows anybody to download and install WordPress and maintain full control over their software stack without dependency upon a single company.

Both the hosted and open source versions of WordPress also integrate with a number of mobile applications that Automattic has developed. These allow for users to post to their blogs not only from their computer but also from their iPhone, Blackberry, or Android devices. While these smartphones are still a small portion of the US cell phone market the fact that, as a platform, WordPress allows for full participation through multiple entry points must be kept in mind.

While WordPress provides for the type of blogging that represents the direct descendant of earlier technologies like Blogger, Twitter creates an entirely new genre of content online. Twitter allows for messages under 140 characters to be posted online from its website, any number of client applications, or from any mobile phone. The sheer diversity of sources that information on Twitter can originate from means that for many it is the lowest friction form of publishing available online.

In both form and source Twitter granulates content to very small pieces. No post is longer than 140 characters and those posts can originate from a users computer (or any public one) or their mobile phone. The spread of posting to any device that supports SMS messages signals a tremendous shift away from the tradition of online publication tools that required a stationary location and a prohibitively expensive computer and internet connection. By integrating into existing SMS technology Twitter has dramatically expanded the user base able to use its service consistently. When it comes to political participation this means that Twitter is not hamstrung like other web services in the number of users it can reach.

The final piece of Twitter’s technology that is politically relevant is its API, or application programming interface. Twitter’s API allows for third-party software developers to write desktop and mobile applications that let users read, post to, and fully interact with Twitter. Furthermore, Twitter’s API has been implemented by WordPress for a cross-service interaction that gives users of Twitter the ability to read and post to their WordPress blog from within a Twitter application. Finally, it is the API that opens up all types of visualizations of the data passing through Twitter. These features give users the freedom to interact with Twitter on whatever platform suits their need and provide developers myriad methods of getting data out of the service. Making it as comfortable as possible for users to publish from wherever they are allows for participation to be frictionless. Additionally, creating a platform that encourages developers to create applications that reveal relationships brings a new level of depth to the 140 character messages posted through Twitter.

The act of publishing as political

Modern online communication technology provides for the best working example of an effective way to communicate ideas.3 Building off of a strong tradition of citizen publication and political freedom, modern tools like WordPress and Twitter create open forums within which the many can publish, respond to one another, and organize around ideas for shared gain. This allows more people to participate in politics. More citizens can also communicate directly with one another through platforms that allow them to engage as individuals and not merely as representatives from a mass.

The publication of opinions from everyday citizens is a facet of American politics that dates back to the 18th century. Even before the United States’ Bill of Rights was passed, which inscribed a free press in its first amendment, William Blackstone wrote that,

Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public

The idea that every free person has the right to make his or her views known before the general body of fellow citizens constitutes an integral part of the political process for Blackstone. Furthermore, this is a right that, in Blackstone’s words, must be beyond doubt.

The role of public deliberation is central to conceptions of democratic participation beyond Blackstone’s as well. Joshua Cohen makes one such claim in an essay titled “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy.” Here he defines a deliberative democracy as,

an association whose affairs are governed by the public deliberation of its members.

In a very similar vein Jürgen Habermas makes the claim that,

Discourse theory has the success of deliberative politics depend not on a collectively acting citizenry but on the institutionalization of the corresponding procedures and conditions of communication.4

Both Cohen and Habermas place public discourse at such a high level in politics that it largely supersedes actual political action. Habermas presents us with a procedural view of discourse; one in which the institutions and procedures of discussion matter instead of the end results and actions. These notions of deliberative democracy are important in the way they place such high importance upon discussion. Ultimately though, online communication tools allow for this type of discussion to be given an important place in politics but are also providing room for political action.

Individuals can now discuss with any member of the public. Due to the nature of online tools the geographical difficulties that previously limited an individual’s public sphere are flattening. The public now increasingly means the online public. This wide ranging public can be brought together to partake in the discourse so valuable to Habermas and Cohen. More importantly, though, all of this discourse serves as the foundation for serious political action and participation.

A more recent perspective on the political role of communication comes from Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. In this book Benkler writes that,

Any system of government committed to the idea that, in principle, the concerns of all those governed by that system are equally respected as potential proper subjects for political action and that all those governed have a say in what government should do requires a public sphere that can capture the observations of all constituents.5

This idea, which Benkler refers to as universal intake, resembles Blackstone’s earlier claim. In both instances the central function of a government lies in taking into account the views of common citizens. The public by default nature of communication through Twitter and WordPress additionally means that any communication between citizens and the government can also spark discussions between fellow citizens. Leveraging WordPress and Twitter as tools toward a universal intake of opinion results in more sentiments being aired in a public manner and provides more opportunities for the development of a public that can talk to itself.6

WordPress and Twitter create an improvement and expansion upon the type of political participation that has traditionally been possible but do not create a utopian political ideal. Difficulties still that exist that must be overcome before we can claim a truly universal right to publish; however, these barriers are not fundamental to the technologies but rather limitations of current social and economic factors. Despite these obstacles to a universal right to publish two key aspects expand the political potential of publishing online: independent software and low barrier to entry cost.

First, the independence of the software is vital. Benjamin Barber concludes his essay “Which Technology and Which Democracy” with the claim that,

The Net must offer a place for us, which means it must in a tangible sense “belong” to us. Anything else, at least with respect to democracy, is hypocrisy.

WordPress offers us this tangible belonging and ownership. The ability of any person to download and install the software as a foundation for the publication of their thoughts means that, in a tangible sense, that software, words, and entire platform belongs to them. Any independent installation of WordPress, such as this site, is fully controlled and owned by the user.

Second, with modern online publishing tools people are able to create and publish content to a global audience without having to own what have traditionally prohibitively expensive means of doing so. As David Weinberger writes in Small Pieces Loosely Joined,

The web has taught us that, to find appreciative readers, an author doesn’t have to be one of the handful of writers who can fit through the eye of a publishing house. Someone wants to hear what we have to say and likes the way we say it.7

WordPress and Twitter both allow for any person to publish their thoughts. Not only do they allow for those thoughts to be published but, in the case of WordPress, they allow for that publication to happen with software fully owned by the end user. The open source nature of WordPress, and other content management systems, allows for any user to create a system that allows for global distribution of their writing without having to rely upon the technologies of a specific company. Technology like WordPress does not automatically result in diverse opinions being presented but it does nothing to inhibit the expression of any opinion.

The open source nature of the software assures that, even if Automattic were to go out of business and all the WordPress.com accounts were to cease, there would still be the open source version of the software that could continually be developed and deployed by the community and its users. Politically this means that, in regard to open source publishing platforms like WordPress, no individuals online voice rests solely in the hands of a company. The outlets for publication and political expression exist in a form that can be deployed without the permission or continued approval of corporate interests. This independence assures that contentious voices will not be cut off from public expression because of controversial opinions.

Furthermore, any piece of information published with these tools is public by default and thus allows for a potentially global dissemination. While the Supreme Court has, since at least the 1930s, protected the ability of individuals to publish, the technology of today is doing more and more to finally make the potential audience of an individual equal that of a corporation. In Lovell v. City of Griffin Chief Justice Hughes wrote that,

The press in its connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.

Twitter, WordPress, and the other outlets of free, individual publishing online provide essential information and opinion. They can be seen as the modern incarnation of the pamphlets published by Thomas Paine that Hughes also refers to in the aforementioned case.

Combining an expansion in citizens’ access to publication tools with the increase in the number of locations from which citizens can publish creates a notion of political participation that drastically alters the status quo. Furthermore, because of the nature of communication on Twitter the number of possible participants increases tremendously.

First, the spread of Twitter and WordPress to mobile devices drastically expands the potential areas from which people can partake in publishing online. While WordPress’ reliance upon smartphone platforms, devices still prohibitively expensive for many people, Twitter’s integration with standard cell phones opens up the ability to participate to the majority of people, even in developing countries. This is not true for traditional forms of communicating online. Email, online forums, and older blogging systems are effective in a society that has developed infrastructure and a population that can afford to spend time online sitting in front of a screen. But these things are still a luxury for many people. Cell phones, though, are incredibly widespread. The ability of Twitter to be fully interacted with by any person, whether they are on their iPhone, computer, or standard cell phone, tremendously expands the diversity of opinions present.

When combined with its inherently short style of messages Twitter creates a very friction-free publishing platform. The ease of being able to post small content from anywhere greatly increases the potential pool of users. As Yochai Benkler writes,

The number of people who can, in principle, participate in a project is therefore inversely related to the size of the smallest-scale contribution necessary to produce a usable module.8

Twitter’s 140 character messages and the ability of users to interact with those messages anywhere via SMS presents a powerful combination of tools for expanding participation. Participation can be reframed from a laborious process that occurs at the convenience of the political system to a quick and accessible action that occurs where it fits into a citizen’s day.

Furthermore, the ability to publish from anywhere means that a far broader range of political information can be captured and used for political action. Instead of relying upon citizens to remember their most pressing political opinions until an opportune moment to express them presents itself, the mobile publishing technologies of WordPress and Twitter allow for people to publish their views when that viewpoint means the most to them.

When combined with the rapidity of information flow from the real-time web the maturation of self-publishing tools allows for the tremendous expansion of three key elements to the political process: speed of information, breadth and diversity of expressed opinion, and ease of information publication. With more information flowing from more places, individuals, and social contexts all that we need to turn it into an effective political model is a way to make sense of it all. We need powerful aggregation and filtration of data.

  1. For a further discussion of the nature of Athenian democracy and its various structures see this article by Christopher Blackwell.
  2. Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006. 141.
  3. For another in-depth discussion of the relation between modern technology and democracy read David Winston’s essay “Digital Democracy and the New Age of Reason.”
  4. Habermas, Jürgen. “Three Normative Models of Democracy.” Democracy and Difference. Ed. Seyla Benhabib. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 27.
  5. Benkler, 182.
  6. Credit for the phrase “a public that can talk to itself” goes to Cody Brown and his article “A Public Can Talk to Itself: Why The Future of News is Actually Pretty Clear”.
  7. Weinberger, David. Small Pieces Loosely Joined. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 2002. 178.
  8. Benkler, 101.