Thursday, December 25, 2008's latest "Join the Discussion" has been hijacked by the web

Well that didn't take long.

As I've noted before, one of the big challenges that Obama's web team will face is that once you open up a forum to the broader web community, you give up a great deal of control about your message. In some cases, a small but passionate group will rally and swarm the forum (e.g. Ron Paul supporters during the primaries, or pillow-fighting flash mobs...anytime). In other cases, individuals will bait each other and engage in trolling behavior until the forum has completely lost focus and become a series of personal attacks.

This past week, less than two months after Obama was elected, we got to see exactly these events unfold on The latest installment in the "Join the Discussion" feature was a question posed by transition team member Paul Schmitz: "What social causes and service organizations are you a part of that make a difference in your community?"

It's a great question, and very aligned with Obama's change agenda and efforts to engage a broader community to take action and make our country a better place. But check out the number one response in the discussion forum, which is featured prominently on the page:
Dear Obama Inauguration Team,

Not only has Pastor Rick Warren compared gay relationships to pedophilia and given vocal support to Uganda's criminalization of homosexuality, but he has also had abusive "ex-gay" progams at his church.

As I'm sure you know, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatrist Association do NOT approve or advocate these "ex-gay" therapies as being gay/homosexual is not a disorder and is an innate orientation.

Therefore, "ex-gay" therapies can definitely be viewed as psychological abuse. There are many ex-"ex-gays" who return to identifying as gay because while they temporarily changed their behavior they never changed their innate feelings and attractions.

They usually report that the "ex-gay" experience caused them severe emotional trauma and some even consider suicide over it. Some spend years and a lot of money in these abusive programs.

Despite what he sometimes says, he is against our very existance. He pretty much said as much when he was in Uganda.


I'm going to try and be careful not to get into the politics here, but regardless of your view on the issue, you probably agree that this topic has become a fairly prominent and controversial one. And now, it has been voted up to the top of the official forum for communication with the transition team. This is not the only issue to get major attention on - there have also been many up-voted comments about legalizing marijuana and demanding more transparency from Obama about the Blagojevich scandal (Blagogate? Blagola?).

On the one hand, I'm sure that the transition team, and Paul Schmitz specifically, wish that Americans could stay on topic. On the other hand, maybe they can see this as a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate what openness, inclusiveness and transparency are all about. These are complex issues, and many of the people voicing their opinions are extremely passionate (and likely a bit partisan). But still, they have risen to the top of the heap, according to the rules that the transition team defined for the message boards.

To the transition team's credit, they have not censored or deleted these off-topic messages. But I'd like to see them take it a step further and at least acknowledge that these topics are important to people. Obviously Obama isn't going to change his stance on gays, weed or paying for senate seats just because a lot of people on the internet have voted for the topic, but the team could at least acknowledge the topic and remind Americans to stay focused on the question they asked.

Monday, December 15, 2008

House parties to solve the health care crisis promise to be the lamest parties ever

Just a quick post here, but I noted last month that Obama should continue to use "old-fashioned" tools alongside the new technology, using them to enhance each other. Now I'm glad to see they are doing exactly that, asking people who were involved in the campaign to host house parties to talk about the health care crisis and provide ideas back to the transition team.

I might try to do this, since many of my friends are very passionate about politics and it would be an interesting learning experience to see how involved people actually want to get. If I do, I'll be sure to write about it here!

"Open for Questions" is already the best interface the public has ever had with President, but I want more!

We've got the first round of responses to the new Open for Questions feature on, and it looks like we have ourselves a legitimate new tool to interact with the government. I love the idea of being able to ask the government tough questions. At the same time, I already can't wait for this tool to get better, because it has loads of problems right now.

Let's start with the good:
  • They answered the top five questions, with no skipping. This is pretty cool, that when they ask us to vote on questions, our vote actually matters! It's also refreshing to see that the top five questions were all nicely worded and free from partisan vitriol. One good sign for the future - they even answered the marijuana question that made it to number one on the list. Obama's answer is pretty safe politically, but it's great that he is directly addressing an issue outside the mainstream if it makes it to the top of the list.
  • The answers are not evasive. They are not quite as direct as we might like, but that's understandable. The real trick will be if they can find a way to expand and provide more detail on questions that surely deserve it (the transparency and education questions especially need more space to be answered properly).
  • The participation was pretty good! I don't have a point of reference, but 20,000 participants casting over a million votes is a pretty good start. I can't wait to see where this will go when news really gets out about it - and I can't wait to see how they scale the system up.
  • As a proof of concept, it looks like the tool is effective. Though many issues still remain, I'm pretty optimistic that this tool will evolve and grow quickly as participation picks up. I stand by my previous post that this tool will be a real game-changer.
And what needs improvement? There are some technical points:
  • The system still has the potential to be swarmed. As we saw throughout the primaries, dedicated supporters of a candidate or issue are capable of harnessing their web-wide community to flood polls and social news sites like Digg to reflect their views. Ron Paul supporters were famous for this, but the most entertaining incident is definitely this one. I have mixed feelings about this issue. On the one hand, democracy means letting people have a voice, and if you can assemble a massive crowd that should count for something. On the other hand, a crowd on the internet is different from a crowd in real life, and we need to protect against abuse as the system grows.
  • Google Moderator is not really scalable to the levels needed. Due to the issue above, and the fact that people can submit questions about anything at all, it's hard to see how Google Moderator (the tool used for the job - what? you didn't realize Google was involved?) will have a hard time keeping up. Even at this scale, I had a hard time finding if the question I wanted to ask had been posed previously. And though they present random questions for you to vote on, it's hard to see how you can get your question to the top without being one of the first, or using swarm tactics.
  • There are some legitimate privacy issues that need to be resolved. Jon Pincus, a social networking technology expert, writes on his blog about the need for better privacy considerations on Open for Questions. I usually think privacy concerns are overblown, but this is a little different. Pincus quotes an email he received that really got me thinking: "Google could (conceivably - and especially for those of us with gmail addresses) use a record of this data to really get involved in people’s personal political predilections." It raises frightening thoughts of McCarthyism or even scarier scenarios involving political imprisonment. Now, I don't think we have to worry about that any time soon, but if the government is able to build a database of all your political views, that is a loss of privacy I get a little worried about.
There are also some improvements I'd like to see that are not technological:
  • The answers should come from Obama himself. I've said this before, and I still think it's true. The answers from the staffers definitely open up a new kind of interaction with the office of the President-elect, but nothing would be as powerful as hearing the answers from Obama himself. This could mean that he incorporates answers into his weekly address, or just that the answers written on the website were signed by him. Either way, I hope we get that sort of interaction later.
  • We need follow-up questions! What can I say? Give me an inch and I want a mile. This is already pretty exciting, but I want to be able to push back when the answers don't quite satisfy. We should be able to give feedback on the answer, maybe in two dimensions: agree/disagree and complete answer/want to hear more.
It seems to be the way I end every post, but all I can say is that this is exciting stuff, and I can't wait to see what comes next!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008's "Open for Questions" could be a dream come true

It's too early to judge if this will live up to expectations, but has unveiled a potentially game-changing new section called "Open for Questions." It's basically a press conference between the public and the transition team, moderated over an internet message board with a Digg-like voting feature to bring the most popular questions to the top.

I can't even wrap my head around how impressive this could be as a display of open government. There are still plenty of unknowns: will the transition team actually answer these questions in any more depth than a typical press release? Will there be a forum to ask follow-up questions? Will the whole concept be overrun by a partisan mob on the web?

But even with these unknowns, this strikes me as biggest step toward transparent, open government we have see so far. Part of the brilliance is in asking for questions - it takes a little bit of the partisanship out of the submissions, since most everyone wants to hear answers to these questions (even if they have very different ideas about what those answers should be).

It will be interesting to see how quickly they start answering questions, and what format they use. The State Department introduces a similar Q&A idea, where spokesperson Sean McCormack answers questions once a week, live on video, unrehearsed.

I liked that format a lot, but in this case I think it is very important that the answers feel like they are coming directly from Obama. Even if a spokesperson presents the answers, we need to know that they have the full weight of the next President behind them.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The vicious cycle of crappy newspaper movie reviews - and what Obama can learn from it

Roger Ebert wrote a depressing column last week about the wide-spread trend of newspapers laying off their film critics, replacing intelligent movie reviews with more celebrity coverage and teen gossip. Reading this column, I couldn't help but see a reflection of the same problem I've discussed in this space: the vicious cycle between low public standards and the groups that feed those low standards.

Roger Ebert is far from the first person to mourn the passing of the intelligent American consumer of news. Everyone from NPR to the New York Times to the Atlantic and on have blamed everything from cable news networks to the internet to low-quality "news magazines" for the steady downward trend in reading in America. Still others take the stance that none of these are to blame, only the lazy American citizen. After all, who makes the decision to veg out in front of the TV? The media are only providing the content that the public demands, and they can't be blamed if the public demands content devoid of meaning and conveyed at a level suitable for 12-year-olds.

We heard plenty about this during the last campaign cycle, too. We all complained about the inane coverage on the 24-hour cable news networks, but we all watched it anyway. We knew that the hologram gimmick on CNN added nothing to the news coverage, but we talked about it anyway. Sure, plenty of us are relying more and more on the internet for news, but we are kidding ourselves if we think the internet alone is going to raise the level of discourse in the country. Visit any news aggregation site like Digg or reddit, and count the number of intelligent stories against the number of funny pictures and YouTube videos. When I check my Google Reader feed for news, half of the items my friends have shared with me are LOLcats (thanks Ben).

It's not just the news coverage either. Even the candidates themselves, both of whom pledged to elevate the campaign above the petty issues of the past, fell into the same patterns of petty politics and playing to press sound-bites. And many people are quick to remind us that all of this is because the reporters have dropped the ball, forgetting that their job is to investigate and report.

So now we've blamed pretty much everyone. It's no surprise Roger Ebert wanted to get in on the action.

Fundamentally, all of these problems have the same underlying structure, and it's one that occurs across all aspects of society. Essentially, it comes down to this: how do you motivate a group to want what is best for itself?

Behind that question are questions that are also difficult: "what is best for a group?" and "when people have different ideas about what is best for a group, who is right?"

Ultimately, because we have a democracy, these two questions of content are decided in a de facto way, by whoever manages to answer the question of motivation. If we had a dictatorship, we would answer the questions in a different order - first deciding what is right, then deciding how to implement it (and this last question would have a very different answer than the answer in a democracy).

Problems of this type arise not only in communities and governments, but also in businesses. From what I've learned in consulting, acting as a bottom-up democracy is generally the preferred way for a business to initiate organizational change. But even in those cases, the prime movers are usually top management, who then try to rally the workforce and harness their energy and ideas.

This is the tactic that Obama is taking, and it's very different from the blaming and complaining that has pervaded every corner of the media, from consumers to newspapers to film critics. It's easy to blame, but it will take a commitment from top management (in this case, the President) to make a dent in any of these problems.

So if you think that Obama's plan is hopeless, or if you believe that the "new politics" will turn out to be more of the same, then you have a very pessimistic view of the future of American politics. Because if this doesn't work, nothing will.