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, 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, 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 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.