Democracy 2.0?

The term ‘Web 2.0’ has been in use for over 5 years now, although there is some – irrelevant in my view – dispute about who first coined it. The web as we knew it in the 1990s is often, retrospectively, described as Web 1.0.

Web 1.0 was about static publishing or ‘brochureware’, about one-way communication from the publisher to the user of the information, about one-size-fits-all style of publishing, and where the publisher’s say-so was probably the only source of trust or legitimacy. Web 2.0 is dynamic and interactive. The published content does not remain static – it morphs and evolves through multi-media broadcast, discussion and link-backs, and these morph-operations, so to speak, are used as a measure of the legitimacy of the publisher. In democratising content this way, Web 2.0 can and does generate a cacophony of noises but the possibility of customisation and personalisation enable a user to experience a higher signal-to-noise ratio.

Although the internet and the web are products of federally funded research programmes in the United States and Europe, the web truly blossomed as commercial organisations brought their creative imagination to it. In addition to technological innovation, new ways of doing work were also made possible, although for many Web 2.0 players,  monetisation, or making money, remains a challenge.

Given the web’s origins, it is great to see Web 2.0 being put to great use in a governance and government context. More specifically, Barack Obama’s transition to taking over as the President of the United States.

An earlier post discussed how Barack Obama was successfully harnessing the community-building aspect of Web 2.0 to orchestrate his victory. Now that he is President-elect, a fully interactive website, Change.gov, has been launched to help his transition.

Upholding the values of transparency and civic involvement, an ‘agenda‘ section outlines the aims of the website. It also outlines the privacy policy, including for children, on the ‘about’ page. The ‘newsroom‘ keeps the American citizens – and other interested people such as me – informed of the developments, complete with video links to public appearances of the members of the transition team. Providing regular updates will not prevent the rumour mills from churning, but it sure can put them to rest pretty quickly. Although the news is listed under ‘blog’, at the time of writing, the blog area is not really interactive, as in readers cannot leave comments etc. Link-backs, such as the many in this post, however can allow the conversation to carry on, in a manner not dissimilar to Seth Godin’s blog. An external link to the transition directory provides information on the people involved in this transition.

The most interesting interactive bits are, of course, the section ‘American Moment‘ where people are invited to share their stories and share their concerns and vision for America, and the section on jobs, where people are invited to express their interest in non-career positions in the Obama administration. Together they balance the emotive or visionary aspects, with the more pragmatic, operational aspects of a building a new administration.

As participatory democracy goes, Change.gov is a pretty interesting development, a first in any democratic country’s history, a sign that the campaign and the transition are being managed by professionals and not career politicians of any kind. It is worth mentioning that federally funded vehicles are prohibited from being used for political fund-raising so this website cannot be used to raise funds for, say, Obama 2012. But, who says that pre-existing communities, who may have funded a prior campaign, cannot participate in new communities to continue their involvement? This website has the potential to harness cleverly the momentum, the positive energy and the goodwill of all those supporters, who helped bring Mr Obama to the Presidency and who helped raise unprecedented sums for his campaign. If things are executed well during this term and if promises are delivered on, the momentum may well carry into the 2012 campaign and boost Obama’s reelection bid.

As this blog features writings at the cusp of strategy, technology, investment and regulation, two sets of natural questions arise from the foregoing.

First, can businesses learn from this manner of running a transparent, informative and participatory web property? What can they gain and more importantly, what can they lose from such an undertaking? Which large businesses are already running their corporate websites to include all their stakeholders?

Why might some businesses prefer to run brand-oriented web properties? Apple.com and of course, Amazon.com are harnessing their communities very effectively. Most other efforts, even from master marketers of Procter and Gamble and others in their league, are brand-focused or just plain poorly run. What is your experience?

Second, do you think Democracy 2.0 is a feasible and a scalable model for other countries and cultures too? What factors apart from the demographics would aid greater transparency in national governance and politics? What factors would hamper it? Is the time of open-source politics upon us?

As the world’s largest democracy, India, goes to the polls in 2009, can this experience be replicated? This question perhaps is worth a whole post or more in itself. Meanwhile do leave your comments below.

Related reading:

GigaOm on Web 2.0 gives birth to Politics 2.0

Robert Hogeboom on Web 2.0 Politics: What brands can learn from the 2008 Presidential campaigns

Jack Welch on Barack Obama’s victory: Three Lessons for business

3 thoughts on “Democracy 2.0?

  1. It will be interesting to see how much the recession contributes to the uptake of this way of doing things. It would be strange indeed to see business2.0 take the lead from politics2.0! I think his biggest contribution has been to give proof of the concept. The rest of the journey from here is (hopefully) just a volume game. Re: other countries and cultures, the barriers will be economic and therefore will need institutional support (internet access from work, public libraries etc.). The key to big success of course is monetisation that creates incentives for the participating public.
    Personally, for me, this is big for the education sector. I see the demise of the traditional college. Others may see the demise of journalism. Then, imagine global soap operas scripted interactively!

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  2. Quite an interesting read especially when the flow is taken out from businesses to [Indian] democracy. I do think Obama’s initiative of the using Web 2.0 to his benefit is a small step forward. Having said that, I can not help but cast doubts over its spread. Whenever we talk of a nation, our conversations presume that the entire populace of the country is educated and tech-savvy or the former.
    But as you said, apart from the demographics, what other factors. Well for one, how concerned is an educated individual, the one who is earning enough to be “happy”, you know the television idea of happiness of flora butter and nice couch, colour HDTV, etc etc, to participate in a democratic exercise. Democracy is already open source, that is the fundamental truth. How many people exercise it or bring it in practice or make themselves an audience and participant at the same time is what will determine the idea of Democracy 2.0
    And this will happen only when we know there is a positive result at the end. Soldiers go to war thinking that it will bring peace to their nation, (although it is quite an inane idea); similarly what is the remuneration for the people involved? But more importantly, what is the motivation?
    And why have Web 2.0 only when you can dramatically reframe the push-and-pull principle of Internet and apply it to say sectors like films. Godard had problems with his audience, his contempt is well known. I’d say you involve the viewers to an extent that they can understand that the crap sold to them these days in the name of FILMS is nothing more than a soap bubble that should be burst. TV 2.0 might soon be a reality. It is starting out in the worst form possible in India, the way I see it. And I reckon it will take 10 years (at least that is if the force of gods is with us; Ahh religion 2.0, remember the online aartis and pujas one could do when flash animation suddenly burst out hahaha) to get to that status if producers like Ekta Kapur are beaten to a pulp by their audiences.
    I do think the reason Kyunki Saas… was finally pulled out was the growing discontent among the whole of India and a majority of that was voiced on Internet.
    I think Obama’s victory signals, very strongly, at the importance of interactivity and social networking (viral marketing) that really becomes the hangout zone. Instead of coffee shops and cafeterias, you see.
    On a personal note, I think Democracy 2.0 in India should not be brought into practice until the entire country is controlled esp in today’s times when knowledge economy (though portrayed as something on the ZENITH) is pretty regressive and consumerist.

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  3. i am thinking aloud here:

    don’t business take the help of popular blogs to conduct a poll for them. for eg: the blog apartment therapy often conducts many polls without giving the name of the company.

    some industries have more advantage than others – educational institutions have been doing that for a long time time. market research and publishing companies have joined the bandwagon. Vault.com started as a participatory formula, but now have limited participation depending upon the terms of membership you have. the more you pay, the more you can participate and get the benefit of others comments.

    democracy 2.0 blogs start on a participatory note but sometimes the candidate ( in politics and election campaign ) begin to feel the “field day that bloggers can have” if they make a”politically incorrect statement”. Hillary Clinton mentioned that.

    When it comes to restaurant reviews, some blogs give an honest perspective, but when the blog gets attention from large publishing companies, the columns try to twist the truth.

    with reference to democracy 2.0 and india – how many percent of indians are connected to the internet ? is that a correct sample size to gauge the umbrella view, again we are coming down to somebody who knows what blogs are , write them , read them. Campaigns in india are conducted very differently ( apples and books ) than the US. the majority want – roti, kapda, makhan (logical enough and practical). the variables are very complex. regional, ethnic, religious, caste, class, language… the list is endless..

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