Thinking about a data-driven college

In an effort to start track­ing some of the ideas I have while read­ing I want to start mak­ing note of ideas and ques­tions that come up here. This is the first of such posts and we’ll see what form they take in the future.

Track­ing my book reading

Inter­est­ing arti­cle that exam­ines some of the frus­tra­tions with cur­rent sys­tems for track­ing read­ing habits. Since I just fin­ished writ­ing an arti­cle for The Whit­man Pio­neer about open knowl­edge sys­tems this got me thinking:

  • What if col­leges started work­ing together on build­ing an open stan­dard for track­ing read­ing? I’m think­ing of a sys­tem that would get me set up as a Fresh­man with a way to keep track of every arti­cle, jour­nal essay, and book that I read while in school. Then, when I grad­u­ate I can either move the sys­tem to my server, or the col­lege pro­vides an export file to import into var­i­ous other ser­vices. If I could go back four years and be pre­sented with a choice between a school that had this sys­tem and one that didn’t I know which I would pick in a heartbeat.
  • Could we con­ceive of a ser­vice that would not only track read­ing but track con­ver­sa­tions about books? What if I could record con­ver­sa­tions with oth­ers about a book and upload them to a ser­vice, for­ever asso­ci­at­ing that con­ver­sa­tion with that read­ing experience?
  • What good is it to track book titles and authors if I don’t also have a canon­i­cal, search­able copy of that book online?

The Data-Driven Life

Long fea­ture piece from The New York Times about the var­i­ous ways peo­ple are track­ing data about their every­day lives. It turns out that seem­ingly mun­dane things can offer remark­able insight into how our minds and bod­ies work. Cou­ple points about this:

  • All (unless I missed one) of the ser­vices men­tioned are owned by sin­gle com­pa­nies. Some, in the case of Nike+, by mas­sive cor­po­ra­tions. I think there’s a huge oppor­tu­nity for some­one to come up with an open source data track­ing sys­tem that allows users to own their data. Fol­low up: what hap­pens to all this won­der­ful, data-driven insight when these com­pa­nies go out of business?
  • How can we tie this data-tracking to busi­ness inter­ac­tions? What ways could I track data that would reveal the com­pa­nies that most con­sis­tently affect my day in a pos­i­tive way?
  • Aca­d­e­m­i­cally, it’d be inter­est­ing to track atten­tion dur­ing a semester-long course to see which sub­jects and dis­cus­sions were most captivating.

Questions about the current state of knowledge management systems

Next week is the sec­ond iter­a­tion of Bar­Camp NewsIn­no­va­tion Philadel­phia. One of the ideas for a ses­sion is dis­cussing the cur­rent state of knowl­edge man­age­ment sys­tems. Daniel Bach­hu­ber describes this as:

how news orga­ni­za­tions man­age all of the data they’re privy to that is either stored in struc­tured for­mat or could be stored in a struc­tured for­mat if they had the tools to do so.

In prepa­ra­tion for the ses­sion there’s a thread going on Hacks/Hackers about what could be cov­ered in such a ses­sion. Since I can’t make it out to Philly I wanted to out­line my thoughts here.

I’m inter­ested in three broad ideas about the way a knowl­edge man­age­ment sys­tem could be effec­tively deployed in a news organization.

Cross-platform track­ing of information

  • Can knowl­edge be tracked in stan­dard for­mats so that a news organization’s KMS is valu­able to non-news orga­ni­za­tions as well?
  • What would it look like for var­i­ous news­rooms to aggre­gate and inte­grate what is con­tained in their KMS? More impor­tantly what would it look like if we had a sys­tem of standards-based KMSes from var­i­ous fields that could be plugged into each other? What would the role of a news orga­ni­za­tion be here?

Role of a KMS in mobile

  • How can we present all of this data in a way that not only works for the desk­top envi­ron­ment but is also dis­cov­er­able enough for mobile users?
  • What forms could a KMS take that makes infor­ma­tion even more rel­e­vant to mobile users?

Role of a KMS in ongo­ing coverage

  • What are the ways that this struc­tured knowl­edge repos­i­tory can be used to ana­lyze and make adjust­ments to a news organization’s coverage?
  • Can track­ing user inter­ac­tion with the prod­ucts of a KMS help us to cre­ate more (in both a quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive sense) journalism?
  • Do the views of a news organization’s top­ics of impor­tance mesh with a community’s?

For those inter­ested in this ses­sion I would also rec­om­mend this dis­cus­sion with David Siegel about the seman­tic web and the notion of a pull econ­omy of infor­ma­tion. This post from “the human net­work” is also worth read­ing as a back­ground for the discussion.

Those are just some brief thoughts for now. Wish I could be there in Philly but I look for­ward to track­ing the con­ver­sa­tions on Twitter.

Archiving Twitter With WordPress

Yes­ter­day I had a spare cou­ple hours and decided to fol­low Doug Bowman’s exam­ple and set up a self-hosted archive of my Twit­ter stream with Word­Press. You can see the fin­ished prod­uct of that here.

There was some inter­est expressed on Twit­ter of oth­ers want­ing to do some­thing sim­i­lar so I thought I’d help out by mak­ing what I did avail­able for down­load. You can grab a copy of the theme and required plu­g­ins which will pro­vide pretty close to a turn key solu­tion for get­ting this running.

I highly sug­gest fol­low­ing Bowman’s tuto­r­ial for down­load­ing and import­ing the ini­tial archive of pre­vi­ous tweets. Once you have that done and the plu­g­ins and theme are installed there’s a cou­ple things you’ll want to do:

  • Replace the profile_image.jpg file in the theme folder with your own pro­file image.
  • Head to your pro­file page within your Word­Press instal­la­tion. You’ll see two new fields, one for the url of your Twit­ter pro­file and the other for your Twit­ter user­name. These power the text in the header so just fill them both out and the header text will be linked to your profile.
  • The tagline below the user­name in the header is pulled from your blog’s tagline so fill that out in Gen­eral tab under­neath Settings.
  • Setup Twit­ter Tools to cre­ate a new blog post every time you tweet. You can find more infor­ma­tion about doing that at the Word­Press plu­gin direc­tory.
  • Run two queries using the Search Regex plu­gin (for more info on these queries read the orig­i­nal source). This will link up all the @usernames and #hash­tags from your tweets.
    • For @usernames enter /(^|s)@(w+)/ into the Search Pat­tern field and then enter 1@<a href="http://twitter.com/2">2</a> into the Replace pat­tern field. Check the Regex box.
    • For #hash­tags enter /(^|s)#(w+)/ into the Search pat­tern field and then enter 1#<a href="http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%232">2</a> into the Replace pat­tern field. Check the Regex box.
    • In both cases I sug­gest run­ning a Replace before run­ning Replace & Save. This will allow you to look every­thing over before mak­ing changes that will affect your database.

That’s it. After doing those steps you should have a search­able, self-hosted archive of every­thing you’ve posted on Twit­ter. If you run into ques­tions or prob­lems feel free to fire away in the comments.

Update 3/23: Emily Ingram pointed me to a plu­gin that will achieve the same auto-linking of @replies and #hash­tags that the regex calls do. It’s a super sim­ple solu­tion and can be down­loaded from the Word­Press direc­tory. Sounds like it works quite well.

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. Con­tinue read­ing

Real-Time Politics

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion has been able to hap­pen nearly instan­ta­neously over the web for years now. Tech­nolo­gies like push email have pre­vi­ously opened chan­nels through which infor­ma­tion can be trans­mit­ted in real-time. Today’s real-time web are dif­fer­ent because of the public-by-default nature of mes­sages. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion through tools like Twit­ter allows for peo­ple to com­mu­ni­cate in a mat­ter of sec­onds and cre­ates a pub­lic fac­ing forum that allows any other user to add their voice to the dis­cus­sion. The pub­lic nature of all this com­mu­ni­ca­tion means that now any per­son can instan­ta­neously com­mu­ni­cate with any leader (be that politi­cian, celebrity, or renowned pro­fes­sor) and engage in sub­stan­tive dis­cus­sion.1

How did we get here?

The year 2006 can be seen as an inflec­tion point for what is now termed the real-time web. That year Twit­ter launched. Sud­denly what we had grown accus­tomed to with email (wait­ing a few min­utes for an update to arrive) seemed like an eter­nity when there was a ser­vice that pro­vided for updates to stream in microsec­onds. The fact that Twit­ter lim­ited these mes­sages to 140 char­ac­ters came to be over­shad­owed by the sheer rapid­ity of infor­ma­tion trans­mis­sion. The real-time web became less about reflect­ing with exam­ined thoughts and more about spread­ing what was hap­pen­ing right now.

This trend toward short, instan­ta­neous updates has con­tin­ued with the launch of Friend­Feed in 2008 and the open sourc­ing of its base web server tech­nol­ogy (known as Tor­nado Web Server) in 2009.  A sin­gle com­pany owns the tech­nol­ogy behind Twit­ter but the server tech­nol­ogy that pow­ers Friend­Feed dif­fers. Friend­Feed accom­plishes the same rapid­ity of flow that Twit­ter pop­u­lar­ized but does so with a web server that is open. This means that any devel­oper can use the base layer of tech­nol­ogy that Friend­Feed open sourced and lever­age it as a plat­form from which any forum for real-time com­mu­ni­ca­tion could be built.2

These tech­nolo­gies pro­vide a stream through which infor­ma­tion can spread glob­ally at an unprece­dented rate. Mes­sages can be sent, replied to, and echoed by mil­lions of users within sec­onds. Most impor­tantly this infor­ma­tion is not lim­ited in sub­ject mat­ter. The flow of infor­ma­tion makes no dis­tinc­tion between a celebrity death and news of elec­toral protests in Iran. One ser­vice ends up being the focal point for news about the lat­est celebrity gos­sip as well as the locus for break­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nomic events. Judge­ment is not made about the infor­ma­tion that passes through Twitter’s chan­nels, the chan­nels sim­ply exist to broad­cast that infor­ma­tion as quickly as pos­si­ble to an audi­ence that is now in the tens of mil­lions.

This lack of dis­tinc­tion made between mes­sages posted on Twit­ter arguably does add to the noise and pres­ence of non-political infor­ma­tion; how­ever, this should not be seen as detract­ing from its polit­i­cal impor­tance. Later, we will see how mod­ern tools for aggre­ga­tion are allow­ing for indi­vid­u­als to fil­ter out the noise, but the mere pres­ence of noise is a polit­i­cal ben­e­fit. If tools like Twit­ter were to restrict pub­lished infor­ma­tion they would be mak­ing an explicit state­ment upon the polit­i­cal nature and source of infor­ma­tion. In an open polit­i­cal soci­ety the judge­ment as to what con­sti­tutes noise must take place after pub­li­ca­tion and, thus, after every­body is able to let their voice be heard. Any­thing else restricts polit­i­cal dia­logue that pre­vents cer­tain peo­ple from participating.

The speed at which all types of infor­ma­tion can be dis­sem­i­nated holds tremen­dous polit­i­cal poten­tial within the United States. Our cur­rent polit­i­cal struc­ture has served us well in an age when infor­ma­tion trav­eled through a few select chan­nels that were broad­cast through­out the coun­try as part of com­mer­cial media com­pa­nies. As cit­i­zens we under­stood that we would have to wait for the nightly news­cast or the morning’s paper to find out about the day’s impor­tant events. These media kept us informed in a world where news trav­eled in hours.

The instan­ta­neous dis­sem­i­na­tion of infor­ma­tion is a real­ity in 2010 and polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion needs to be reframed in order to take advan­tage of these tools. Ulti­mately the real-time web has cre­ated an ecosys­tem of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that can be used to expand and rede­fine polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. In an era that prizes the now, polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion must be recon­cep­tu­al­ized as a con­tin­u­ous process.

These tech­nolo­gies are being lever­aged to cre­ate a forum in which cit­i­zens can express their opin­ion at any­time. The polit­i­cal sys­tem of the past seg­mented par­tic­i­pa­tion to occur once every year, or even once every four years. Par­tic­i­pa­tion in a real-time polit­i­cal sys­tem allows for cit­i­zens to be involved every month or week, or pos­si­bly every day.

What is the real-time web?

In order to under­stand the polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of all this tech­nol­ogy we must first under­stand the real-time web. In August of 2009 Read­WriteWeb pub­lished a three-part series of arti­cles explain­ing var­i­ous aspects of the real-time web. In the first part Ken Fromm writes that the real-time web is,

a new form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion [that] cre­ates a new body of con­tent [which] is pub­lic and has an explic­itly social graph asso­ci­ated with it.

This char­ac­ter­i­za­tion embod­ies the core of what these tech­nolo­gies accom­plish. Twit­ter and the tech­nol­ogy behind Friend­Feed embody a com­bi­na­tion of the ele­ments out­lined by Fromm. Friend­Feed and Twit­ter have an inher­ently social ele­ment to them and both have allowed for a new form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that has effec­tively cre­ated a new body of con­tent that did not pre­vi­ously exist. When these tech­nolo­gies are com­bined with the three ele­ments of the real-time web that Fromm describes the poten­tial arises to achieve a notion of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion defined by con­stant cit­i­zen involvement.

Real-time pol­i­tics

Three key areas of this tech­nol­ogy hold the great­est impact in terms of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. A web that allows for instan­ta­neous com­mu­ni­ca­tion through the medi­ums detailed above rede­fines tra­di­tional notions of group for­ma­tion and the polit­i­cal impact of direct cit­i­zen input. These two con­cepts will be explored at length below but in gen­eral the real-time web holds the poten­tial to so dras­ti­cally shift our con­cep­tions of these actions that a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent notion of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion is needed.

The way in which groups form and even­tu­ally dis­band is an aspect of the mod­ern Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sys­tem that fun­da­men­tally dif­fers in a world where Twit­ter and Friend­Feed exist. Pol­i­tics in the United States has long been about gath­er­ing peo­ple together through shared opin­ions and con­cerns. In the early years of the nation this was pri­mar­ily done through polit­i­cal par­ties. Thomas Jef­fer­son wrote of the process of party for­ma­tion and divi­sion in a let­ter to John Adams on June 27 of 1813,

Men have dif­fered in opin­ion, and been divided into par­ties by these opin­ions, from the first ori­gin of soci­eties and in all gov­ern­ments where they have been per­mit­ted freely to think and to speak.3

While polit­i­cal par­ties char­ac­ter­ized groups formed around shared opin­ions in the early years of the nation, more recently we can see this same effect in such orga­ni­za­tions as MoveOn.org, PETA, and the NRA. These inter­est groups arose out of sit­u­a­tions in which polit­i­cal par­ties are no longer affec­tive enough for cit­i­zens. Writ­ing in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury P.H. Ode­gard claimed that,

direct democ­racy falls down in the face of increas­ing num­bers. The indi­vid­ual plain man, swal­lowed up in a sea of highly dif­fer­en­ti­ated human beings, finds it nec­es­sary to orga­nize with oth­ers of a like mind so that by con­certed action they may bend the state to their will…It is this sit­u­a­tion which has engen­dered the pres­sure group.4

These pres­sure groups, now bet­ter known as spe­cial inter­est groups, were the twen­ti­eth century’s solu­tion to the prob­lem of scale in a democ­racy as large as the United States. Through­out the last cen­tury not every cit­i­zen could real­is­ti­cally make his or her claims upon their gov­ern­ment. As such they came to band together just like Ode­gard describes. The result was orga­ni­za­tions like PETA and the NRA that mobi­lize peo­ple behind com­mon inter­ests for shared polit­i­cal action.

Not only do inter­est groups serve to mobi­lize cit­i­zens but they also play a large role in inform­ing their polit­i­cal views. Phillip Agre writes in “Real-Time Pol­i­tics: The Inter­net and the Polit­i­cal Process” that,

Polit­i­cal par­ties and leg­is­la­tures, for exam­ple, do not sim­ply trans­mit infor­ma­tion; they actively process it, espe­cially by syn­the­siz­ing polit­i­cal opin­ions and inter­ests into ide­o­log­i­cally coher­ent plat­forms.5

The role of groups like MoveOn.org, PETA, and the NRA as infor­ma­tion cen­ters makes older inter­est groups out­moded. With how infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion flows on the real-time web these old insti­tu­tions and struc­tures no longer rep­re­sent the most effi­cient out­lets for infor­ma­tion. In addi­tion, as will be cov­ered later, the reliance of cit­i­zens upon inter­est groups’ abil­ity to process infor­ma­tion is no longer a necessity.

The real-time web pro­vides a toolset that alters the role that orga­ni­za­tions like MoveOn.org play in polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion. Fur­ther­more, the tech­nol­ogy behind the real-time web pro­vides a par­tial solu­tion to the prob­lem of scale inher­ent in twen­ti­eth cen­tury efforts to involve a greater per­cent­age of the pop­u­lace in the decision-making process. Find­ing effec­tive means toward dis­sem­i­nat­ing polit­i­cal infor­ma­tion for the goal of orga­niz­ing polit­i­cal actions no longer hinges upon the abil­i­ties of inter­est groups. The real-time web allows for indi­vid­u­als to track flows of pub­lic infor­ma­tion on their own and mod­ern tools of data aggre­ga­tion allow them take con­trol of the pro­cess­ing of this infor­ma­tion as well.

Defin­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion through the real-time web

Group orga­ni­za­tion and action is another foun­da­tional aspect of pol­i­tics that becomes trans­formed by com­mu­ni­ca­tion through the real-time web. Clay Shirky writes in his recent book, Here Comes Every­body, that,

Group action gives human soci­ety its par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter, and any­thing that changes the way groups get things done will affect soci­ety as a whole.6

Shirky holds that group action rep­re­sents a vital part of not just pol­i­tics, but human soci­ety in gen­eral. The devel­op­ment that Shirky points to as cre­at­ing change in group action is the same social graph that Fromm char­ac­ter­izes as an inher­ent part of the real-time web. Shirky claims that with tools based around social interaction,

We now have com­mu­ni­ca­tions tools that are flex­i­ble enough to match our social capabilities…we are liv­ing in the mid­dle of a remark­able increase in our abil­ity to share, to coop­er­ate with one another, and to take col­lec­tive action, all out­side the frame­work of tra­di­tional insti­tu­tions and orga­ni­za­tions.7

This increase in our abil­ity to share and coop­er­ate with one another forms the basis for a con­cep­tion of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion not con­strained by the same prob­lems as that of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. When Amer­i­can cit­i­zens orga­nized together over the last 100 years they largely did so under the aus­pices of spe­cial inter­est groups.

These inter­est groups were orga­ni­za­tions that were gov­erned by a board of direc­tors or a sim­i­lar group of full-time employ­ees work­ing in the best inter­est of the organization’s many mem­bers. This struc­ture mir­rors that of the polit­i­cal sys­tem at large where cit­i­zens com­mu­ni­cate with their rep­re­sen­ta­tives through well defined channels.

Pre­vi­ous writ­ers have remarked that the break­down of these chan­nels may hold neg­a­tive ram­i­fi­ca­tions for democ­racy. Writ­ing in Rad­i­cal Democ­racy and the Inter­net John Downey explains that,

The pub­lic sphere might be both more par­tic­i­pa­tive and delib­er­a­tive [as a result of online com­mu­ni­ca­tion] but there might not be a demo­c­ra­tic bonus if the chan­nels between the pub­lic sphere and rep­re­sen­ta­tives are sev­ered.“8

What Downey fails to real­ize is that dis­rup­tion of tra­di­tional chan­nels does not neces­si­tate com­plete destruc­tion. The mass avail­abil­ity of the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate in real-time through any num­ber of medi­ums means that any­body, from an indi­vid­ual that makes up the “pub­lic sphere” to a city mayor, can par­tic­i­pate. The real-time web only destroys the con­nec­tion between the pub­lic and their rep­re­sen­ta­tives if their rep­re­sen­ta­tives fail to adapt to a chang­ing land­scape of communication.

With infor­ma­tion from mil­lions of users being trans­mit­ted every minute only a small por­tion of that infor­ma­tion needs to be polit­i­cal for its ram­i­fi­ca­tions to be wide­spread in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Twit­ter and the open-source tech­nol­ogy behind Friend­Feed allow for com­mu­ni­ca­tion to hap­pen in an inher­ently social medium. This medium is not lim­ited in its appli­ca­tions. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion can hap­pen between any user with an account. There are no pre­ferred chan­nels. There are no appoint­ment require­ments. A cit­i­zen just needs a few short sec­ond to type their thoughts and click “Update” to com­mu­ni­cate with their representative.

Con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing the real-time citizen

We have long pos­sessed tools that allow for cit­i­zens to com­mu­ni­cate with rep­re­sen­ta­tives, but the real-time web changes the nature of this com­mu­ni­ca­tion. While it can be argued that the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate through chan­nels like Twit­ter merely iter­ates upon our decades long abil­ity to write let­ters and emails to rep­re­sen­ta­tives this misses the cen­tral point about the real-time web: the instan­ta­neous com­mu­ni­ca­tion that occurs in public-by-default forums.

We finally have a soft­ware plat­form from which we can build a con­cep­tion of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion uncon­strained by annual or qua­dren­nial elec­tions. This is par­tic­i­pa­tion for the real-time citizen.

A polit­i­cal process is an inher­ently iter­a­tive one. Bills are pre­sented, refined, com­pro­mised, and even­tu­ally voted upon. Tra­di­tion­ally this has hap­pened in the secluded halls of Wash­ing­ton and state cap­i­tals. The agents of iter­a­tion have been rep­re­sen­ta­tives that have been selected by the peo­ple but the real-time web pro­vides an oppor­tu­nity for indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens to become engaged in this process. Not only does it allow indi­vid­u­als to be involved in this process but it changes the very nature of par­tic­i­pa­tion. Par­tic­i­pa­tion becomes open to all and, more impor­tantly, becomes some­thing pub­lic to all.

Polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion must no longer con­fined to elec­tion cycles. Yes, elec­tion cycles need to play a role in our rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy, but we have tech­nol­ogy that allows for some­thing more engag­ing. Lever­ag­ing tech­nolo­gies of the real-time web politi­cians can present ideas to the pub­lic and receive imme­di­ate feed­back. Fur­ther­more, this gar­ner­ing of feed­back would be done with very lit­tle over­head. There would be no orga­ni­za­tions that would have to mobi­lize, no build­ings to rent, or speak­ing tours to arrange. The entire process could fit within a rep­re­sen­ta­tives cur­rent sched­ule and could take place from wher­ever a politi­cian was at the moment.

Finally, polit­i­cal debates could use some recent con­fer­ences as a model and project a backchan­nel of dis­cus­sion dur­ing ses­sions. This could bring a real-time stream of feed­back into a leg­isla­tive dis­cus­sion. Par­tic­u­larly when com­bined with a live broad­cast of the debate this method would allow for cit­i­zens to lis­ten in on and speak up at impor­tant leg­isla­tive events.

All of these poten­tial avenues could be explored to accom­plish a sin­gu­lar goal: reframe polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion as some­thing that occurs in small pieces through­out the course of every day for every cit­i­zen. The tech­nol­ogy has shown that there are mil­lions of peo­ple who are will­ing to pro­duce short pieces of infor­ma­tion and con­vey brief opin­ions as a part of their every­day life. The only thing left is to incor­po­rate this tech­nol­ogy into our ideas of polit­i­cal participation.

  1. For an exam­ple of this type of com­mu­ni­ca­tion see the fol­low­ing exchanges of mes­sages on Twit­ter between Daniel Bach­hu­ber, a 22 year-old entre­pre­neur, and Jay Rosen, a jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at New York Uni­ver­sity. Jay posted a short mes­sage with a link to a longer arti­cle. Daniel posed a ques­tion in response to that post. Jay then pro­ceeded to respond to Daniel’s ques­tion in two later posts. The entire con­ver­sa­tion took place in less than 30 minutes.
  2. One recent exam­ple of this Quora, a real-time ques­tion and answer appli­ca­tion that uses Tor­nado as its base.
  3. Jef­fer­son, Thomas. The Life and Selected Writ­ings of Thomas Jef­fer­son. Ed. Adri­enne Koch and William Peden. New York: The Mod­ern Library, 2004. 574
  4. Jor­dan, Grant and William A. Mal­oney. Democ­racy and Inter­est Groups: Enhanc­ing Par­tic­i­pa­tion? New York: Pal­grave Macmil­lian, 2007. 1
  5. Agre asks for the copy of this essay that appeared in The Infor­ma­tion Soci­ety jour­nal to be cited but for rea­sons of acces­si­bil­ity I have cited the linked essay since it is freely avail­able online.
  6. Shirky, Loca­tion 335–343.
  7. Shirky, Loca­tion 299–307.
  8. Downey, John. “Par­tic­i­pa­tion and/or Delib­er­a­tion? The Inter­net as a Tool for Achiev­ing Rad­i­cal Demo­c­ra­tic Aims.” Rad­i­cal Democ­racy and the Inter­net. Ed. Lin­coln Dahlberg and Euge­nia Sia­pera. New York, Pal­grave Macmil­lian, 2007. 111.

How we can participate

As tech­nol­ogy and the tools for com­mu­ni­cat­ing online become more mature and acces­si­ble, some gen­eral trends emerge. First, with the rise of the real-time web and ser­vices like Twit­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion online hap­pens faster. It is also com­ing from mil­lions of indi­vid­u­als who can pub­lish from nearly every­where using the mobile capac­i­ties of Word­Press, Twit­ter, and sim­i­lar soft­ware. Finally, this increase in speed and quan­tity of com­mu­ni­ca­tion fuels the devel­op­ment of sophis­ti­cated tools for aggre­ga­tion and fil­tra­tion of infor­ma­tion flows. All of these tools are usable and deploy­able by indi­vid­u­als. What is pos­si­ble with all this tech­nol­ogy is a rad­i­cal shift toward indi­vid­ual con­trol and influ­ence in polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. Polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion need no longer be some­thing medi­ated through inter­est groups and rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Instead, tech­nol­ogy has allowed for the poten­tial for indi­vid­u­als to play their part in the broader polit­i­cal arena.

We must keep in mind that as rev­o­lu­tion­ary as all of these tech­nolo­gies can seem they are no guar­an­tee of expanded par­tic­i­pa­tion. Tech­nol­ogy in and of itself does not deter­mine pol­i­tics. Appli­ca­tion and adop­tion by cit­i­zens deter­mines polit­i­cal impact. Yochai Ben­kler makes a sim­i­lar point in the intro­duc­tion to The Wealth of Net­works when he writes that,

Nei­ther deter­min­is­tic nor wholly mal­leable, tech­nol­ogy sets some para­me­ters of indi­vid­ual and social action. It can make some actions, rela­tion­ships, orga­ni­za­tions, and insti­tu­tions eas­ier to pur­sue, and oth­ers harder.1

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­forms like the real-time web, Twit­ter, Word­Press and con­sump­tion mech­a­nisms like Google Reader and Fever dras­ti­cally altered the para­me­ters of poten­tial indi­vid­ual and social action. Indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens have such sig­nif­i­cant oppor­tu­nity at their fin­ger­tips that the bound­aries of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion have expanded sig­nif­i­cantly. None of this is assured, rather it is poten­tial that we must put into polit­i­cal prac­tice; how­ever, some recent events can pro­vide optimism.

The para­me­ters that have been expanded through online com­mu­ni­ca­tion are twofold. First, our abil­ity for indi­vid­ual action and auton­omy expands through these tools than pre­vi­ous meth­ods of pub­li­ca­tion. Sec­ond, this indi­vid­ual auton­omy allows for more inde­pen­dent group for­ma­tion that main­tains the iden­tity of indi­vid­ual citizens.

Hav­ing the abil­ity to pub­lish to a poten­tial global audi­ence was some­thing open to only a select few in a pre-internet age. To glob­ally dis­trib­ute infor­ma­tion was some­thing restricted to mass pub­lish­ing houses and main­stream media pub­li­ca­tions. The democ­ra­ti­za­tion of pub­lish­ing has changed this dynamic. If an indi­vid­ual wants a mass audi­ence the poten­tial exists to have one. The phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of print­ing presses and cap­i­tal resources to dis­sem­i­nate infor­ma­tion have largely dis­s­ap­peared. As Clay Shirky said at Web 2.0 Expo in 2008,

the inter­net intro­duced post-Gutenberg eco­nom­ics. The cost of pub­lish­ing has fallen through the floor.

The avail­abil­ity of this type of pub­lish­ing to indi­vid­u­als rep­re­sents a remark­ably polit­i­cal event. Through these tools indi­vid­u­als have tremen­dous power to pub­lish their view­points and through soft­ware like Google Reader and Fever they can aggre­gate infor­ma­tion from other indi­vid­u­als to find areas of com­mon inter­est and shared con­cern. This abil­ity to pub­lish, aggre­gate, and orga­nize presents a unique oppor­tu­nity of group for­ma­tion and mobi­liza­tion online that is not the same under a tra­di­tional polit­i­cal sys­tem. Groups can come together as true col­lec­tions of indi­vid­u­als who all have access to public-facing com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels. Sym­bolic lead­ers are not needed to relay infor­ma­tion and tell mem­bers what is impor­tant, this process can all be done by individuals.

Ulti­mately, though, as pow­er­ful as this tech­nol­ogy is noth­ing will change by itself. In order for polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion to truly be rev­o­lu­tion­ized it will rely upon cit­i­zens tak­ing advan­tage of the tools avail­able to them and begin­ning to pub­lish online and aggre­gate sources together into a per­son­al­ized infor­ma­tion flow. None of the poten­tial mat­ters if we, as polit­i­cal cit­i­zens, obsti­nately refuse to change our habits. If we con­tinue to give prece­dence to orga­ni­za­tions that do the aggre­gate, fil­ter, and pub­lish infor­ma­tion for us then the poten­tial of all these tech­nolo­gies dis­ap­pears. How­ever, if we decide to take indi­vid­ual own­er­ship over the pub­li­ca­tion of our opin­ions and seek to con­struct per­son­al­ized infor­ma­tion streams, then the poten­tial of these tech­nolo­gies will become fully real­ized in rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal change. Through the polit­i­cal appli­ca­tion of these tech­nolo­gies we have the abil­ity to gain indi­vid­ual con­trol over our infor­ma­tion con­sump­tion and pub­li­ca­tion. We can orga­nize rapidly as indi­vid­ual to under­take col­lec­tive polit­i­cal action. Ulti­mately, we can trans­form polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion from a slow, occa­sional process that hap­pens at the government’s con­ve­nience to some­thing defined by small actions taken as part of a con­tin­ual process that works toward iter­a­tive polit­i­cal change.

  1. Ben­kler, 17.

Building off of a coral reef — a Whitman blog network

In the most recent episode of Dave Winer and Jay Rosen’s tremen­dous pod­cast titled “Reboot­ing the News” Dave men­tions the metaphor of treat­ing jour­nal­ism like a coral reef. Basi­cally the gist of the metaphor, as I under­stand it, is this: if you can put in the ini­tial work to start cov­er­ing many dif­fer­ent aspects of a com­mu­nity then pretty soon that com­mu­nity will become involved in build­ing and giv­ing life to that local news site.

Daniel Bach­hu­ber posted his thoughts on this a cou­ple nights ago and expanded upon the con­cept in terms of data and infor­ma­tion. This all got me think­ing about how this con­cept could be applied to a small col­lege paper like the Whit­man Pio­neer. As part of my work this sum­mer on redesign­ing The Pioneer’s site I’m work­ing to cre­ate a foun­da­tion from which the paper can build fea­tures in the com­ing years. Part of this involves cre­at­ing a frame­work that can inte­grate and inspire com­mu­nity engage­ment. What bet­ter method of doing this than cre­at­ing a “coral reef.”

Here’s what I’m think­ing: Right now we have a few var­i­ous blogs that are writ­ten by staff writ­ers. Most of them are not updated all that fre­quently and those that we have essen­tially serve as beat blogs and expand the cov­er­age of events and top­ics that The Pio­neer already cov­ers. What we don’t have that I think could prove to be incred­i­bly inter­est­ing and engag­ing is a net­work of blogs writ­ten by other mem­bers of the Whit­man community.

I know there’s other stu­dents, pro­fes­sors, etc. that have blogs but I have no idea what the urls are; con­se­quently I have no easy way to find out what they’re writ­ing about. What I’m envi­sion­ing is cre­at­ing a Pio­neer blog net­work where we do two main things:

  1. Aggre­gate the con­tent from per­sonal blogs — This could be any­thing from someone’s Tum­blr to a Word­Press or Blog­ger site. They would just go about post­ing con­tent in the nor­mal way and we would aggre­gate it on our site and pro­vide links and some infor­ma­tion so that The Pioneer’s read­ers would be able to get a bet­ter sense of what “reg­u­lar” Whit­man stu­dents are thinking.
  2. Pro­vide a frame­work for addi­tional blogs — Not all stu­dents are tech-savvy enough to have their own per­sonal domain, or moti­vated enough to start their own blog on WordPress.com or Blog­ger. What I would pro­pose here is that The Pio­neer pro­vides a blog for any stu­dent inter­ested. These could be hosted on our domain and run cus­tom installs of Word­Press. I would put together a col­lec­tion of themes (both self-designed and from the Word­Press com­mu­nity) and they would be able to install any of those (or any­thing else they find) and all the plu­g­ins the want. Their blog could then be hosted at a sub-domain of The Pioneer’s site (some­thing like http://blogs.whitmanpioneer.com/joeblogger).

What I see this as accom­plish­ing is twofold.

For one, stu­dents (both prospec­tive and enrolled) would have a place to turn to find the recent views of their class­mates. We cur­rently fea­ture columns from stu­dents study­ing abroad but there are far more that keep blogs dur­ing their time in var­i­ous coun­tries. How cool would it be to have a place that aggre­gates all of this infor­ma­tion about the Whit­man experience?

Sec­ond, I see this as pro­vid­ing a forum through which both par­ents and the com­mu­nity in gen­eral can become more involved in the views expressed and dis­cussed. There’s always a lot of talk about how Whit­man stu­dents go to school in a bub­ble and I think this could help to com­bat that per­cep­tion. It would pro­vide a well-trafficked site through which they could express their opin­ions on issues span­ning sports, pol­i­tics, com­mu­nity ser­vice, crime, etc. It would also give a direct line for com­mu­nity mem­bers to inter­act with stu­dents. They would have a place to turn to find what Whit­man stu­dents are say­ing and con­se­quently would be able to eas­ily add com­ments and their own perspectives.

Any­way, those are just my quick and very much rough draft thoughts on the mat­ter. I’m sure the idea will grow the more I think about it in the com­ing days. I’ll also be work­ing on post­ing a wire­frame for the page in the com­ing weeks and we’ll see how fea­si­ble that is. What I’m won­der­ing is what you think: Sound like a good idea? Think it’s awful and a waste of time? Do you know of any schools or news orga­ni­za­tions that are attempt­ing some­thing similar?