How Our Next President Should Use Participatory Media

    by Mark Glaser
    February 18, 2008

    i-1deb734a3d330da884f4fbbe05152410-Presidential seal.jpg

    Today is President’s Day in the U.S., celebrating the February birthdays of past presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. But rather than looking back, I’d like to look forward to the next president of the United States — whoever he or she will be — and consider how they might use technology and new media to be more responsive to us.

    In theory, our elected officials are supposed to represent our interests in a representative democracy. In practice, our elected officials usually are more interested in what their donors or lobbyists think. But with all the talk during the campaign about finance reform and the disavowal of corporate influence, perhaps we can hope for more next year.


    I’d like to make this a group exercise, and will kick it off by listing some ways that I think the next president can use technology to be more responsive. I would like you to send in your ideas so we can make this an even better, more comprehensive list.

    Presidential Participatory Media

    > Write a regular blog or Twitter feed that would update the electorate on what you’re thinking and doing in official and personal affairs. Allow people to comment and respond on the blog.


    > Put major policy initiatives into wikis before they are brought to Capitol Hill. That would allow people to annotate and comment on the initiatives when they are in earlier stages. The wiki would have to be moderated in some way to keep out pranksters and trouble-makers. Imagine how useful this tool might be when you are stuck in a foreign policy conundrum.

    > Live online chats or video Q&As. Rather than just the usual boring presidential press conferences, maybe you could go online and answer people’s questions in real time via text chat. Or you could use the 10Questions format to get the highest-voted questions by voters, and then answer them via online video.

    > Transparent, online schedule. Put your entire daily schedule online in an application that we all can view. Unless the meeting is about something related to war or national security, we have a right to know who is meeting with you and whether they are staying overnight at the White House.

    > Show us the money. Every time someone donates money to you, we want to know who they are, how much they gave and where they live on an annotated Google Map. There are plenty of political donation databases but we want the one that you build to be more transparent than we ever could have imagined.

    > Create an online community of trusted advisors. Why not tap the wisdom of crowds and invite people with knowledge of critical subjects (energy, Middle East history, religion, etc.) to join up into online communities? These people would have to pass a certain threshold to join and be accepted, but they could give more outside opinions to subjects that are often misunderstood by politicians and political operatives. While lobbyists and special interests might join up, at least the others that join will make it a more level playing field for advice.

    So what do you think the new president can do? And among the remaining candidates — McCain, Huckabee, Clinton or Obama — who do you think would be most likely to do these things, if elected? Share your thoughts in the comments below or use the Feedback Form. I will then add in your best ideas to the list, with credit to you, and will keep updating it over the next few weeks. Happy President’s Day!

    Photo of the presidential seal by Allesandro Abate via Flickr.

    Tagged: activism election politics
    • You raise some good thoughts in your post. I have been watching the role of the web and social media in this campaign much more than in the blog-defining presidential campaign of 2004. I will be interesting to see if someone like Barack Obama, who is clearly in the lead as Candidate 2.0, will be able to extend his use of the web as President 2.0. I find it interesting how the Senator’s site (http://obama.senate.gov/) is so 1.0 in comparison to his campaign site.

      I think the world is ready for more transparency in government, and social media is the way to get us there.

    • Some excellent ideas, here. Several UK MPs have started blogging and maintaining an online discussion forum with their constituents.

      I’m not so sure about the online schedule, though – I would imagine that trying to manage security for the President of the USA is a tough enough job as it is, without making it possible for every John Terrorist in the world to know where he/she is at any given moment!

    • Great ideas, and I agree about the push for transparency. I wonder, though, how much monitoring and control would go into the participatory end – especially, for example, with the Wiki – and would that affect the ethical democratic nature of this dialogue?

      Also, I have to say, thinking of the potential trolls that would flock to the President’s blog is pretty interesting…

    • Thanks for the interesting post.

      Now that the candidates have figured out how to use technology to fundraise and grow their campaigns, they should certainly use it to promote transparency and greater involvement. There is huge untapped potential among citizens to play a more active role in government. It would be a real move forward if we could harness our collective wisdom to collaboratively write policy and help our representatives think through difficult issues. In fact, I can’t think of a better space to tap citizens’ collective wisdom than about the policies that affect our daily lives!

    • While the Web, in all its glory, might provide more transparency and responsiveness, with respect to Government at all levels, it could easily be harnessed in a way that provides, merely, the ILLUSION of those things. None of us has any idea, especially in war-time, whether what we see or hear is real, in any way.

      Ronald Reagan, that broad-shouldered, affable “man’s man”, smiled, tossed a football so that it didn’t wobble, in-flight, and read a tele-prompter like nobody’s business. And people ignored his unConstitutional acts and the danger that his policies put our country into. A military man I once knew told me that, during the reign of the Great Communicator, the Teflon President, we came to the brink of nuclear war! And now, we’re on the verge of bankruptcy, having followed policies that his Administration put into place.

      Providing “average Joes” with access to policy-makers sounds like a great idea. There is, after all, real wisdom on the shop floor, in the fields, in offices, and, definitely, in “them thar hills”. But not all mountebanks are on stage, in New York and Vegas, and Hollywood isn’t the only place you’ll find actors deserving of an Oscar.

      Any politician can become a prisoner in a “holochamber” filled with yes-men. In a country as big as ours is, you could pack the entire Mall, in DC, with not even HALF of those yes-men, and STILL not have a representative sampling of the U.S. citizenry. Twenty million is less than a TENTH of our population. But a President, looking out and seeing a crowd 20 million strong, might easily come to believe that that crowd IS “the People”.

      How will technology be employed in such a way that it provides the REALITY of access, both of the People to the politican AND of the politician to the People, rather than the illusion?

    • Some very good ideas. I agree that the schedule might be problematic for security reasons. I especially like the one about who spends the night at the White House! Transparency is soooo needed.

    • Karyn,
      The schedule would have to be done in a way that would not compromise the President’s security. I am basing the idea on something the Sunlight Foundation did, the Punch the Clock campaign, where they tried to get members of Congress to post their daily schedules on their websites:

      It’s true that a president trying to get input from all 400 million citizens would be difficult, if not impossible. Using technology would possibly limit that input to those with access, for sure. But even if a fraction of the “audience” could help give feedback and shape policy, it would be better than nothing, which is basically the way it works now.

      I’m glad this idea is starting to spread. My hope is not necessarily that the next president would do all these things, but at the very least consider them.

    • This is an excellent beginning to a discussion that I think is very important for our country to have.

      Our current political system is designed because of the fact that we can’t all be in Washington. We elect representatives who (we hope) will speak for the people. Generally (says the cynic in me) this happens on ‘election’ issues. The issues that drive people out to vote.

      With the rise of public communication tools through the Internet, we do have a medium that provides more citizens a direct way to interact with their government. This should absolutely be used. However, without a cultural change through the government, a blog is just another mass medium.

      Real change will come when the people are invested in the process and vote for representatives who will carry their message to Washington with them. In my opinion, this is especially true because most people will use online communication tools to share local problems. We have a channel for that in our local and state representatives.

      I would like to see more of the congressmen, congresswomen, and Senators using open lines of communication to understand their constituents interests on issues that may not have come up during the election cycle.

      I do agree with the point about policy though. When you can get a group of people together, preferably with some knowledge of what they are talking about, you can rise above the local to tackle issues that have more far-reaching consequences. Where online collaborative tools can be most effective is in facilitating citizen discussion in order to build broad support among constituent groups that can pressure their representatives to act.

      with relation to the Executive branch, I don’t think the President needs to blog. He or she will not have enough time in the day to put any real effort into it, thus turning it into some ghostwriter’s job and cheapening the experience.

      However, the Executive branch does have a large bureaucracy of its own. Not only with staff directly involved in the administration but all of the departments and agencies that report to it. These are the places that would benefit the most from using online communications so they could back their requests with evidence of American support. At this level, I do think that authentic communication can happen through people charged with that responsibility. Again, not necessarily the person in charge but someone that can spend the time required to not only describe their own work but actually engage (and seek engagement) with the public.

      I’m hopeful that the next administration will take the first steps towards making the cultural changes. But I would also charge the American people with making their own changes and electing politicians on a local level that are willing to participate in ongoing conversations. When that starts happening, then we can talk about social media in government.

    • It’s gratifying to see such well considered arguments and suggestions! I find myself wondering how many people realize how long it has taken us to reach this point in our trajectory. (I recall making us of our university mainframe computer resources to publish the book we’d created on corporate involvement in then apartheid South Africa … late 70s!)

      From my perspective (I was in SigInt early 70s, a very dark age, what with Chile and such) we have barely begun to assess the real requirements. As web-workers know, even the most popular blog posts and their comments enjoy only a short time in the sun before they sink into the gloom of cyber-archives, as do good forum threads … and always, all these are subjected to not only SPAM but the unfortunate debris of human interaction … dissipation and flames.

      I’ve been working on an alternative set of methods and processes for a decade. (I could say “since 1975!) Your material heartens me. For that: sincere thanks.

    • Mr. Glaser:

      My name is Byron Bowerman, you might remember me as the photographer of the picture that accompanies this post. While Im honored to see my work published, there are a few concerns that I would like to address.

      Flickr’s Community Guidelines require users to link back to the Flickr photo page for photos that are hosted on Flickr. I realize that this particular guideline isnt exactly applicable in this particular case, as you have chosen to mirror my image on your own server, but this practice is considered proper etiquette. Although within your rights, by hosting the picture on your server, I am losing out on the traffic that would otherwise be generated by either embedding the image from Flickr, or at least providing a link back to the proper page.

      In addition to this informal courtesy, I would like to point out that this picture, as well as all of my public pictures that are hosted on Flickr, is protected by the Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivative works license. This license grants any non-commercial copying, distribution, transmission, provided that the file is not modified, and the proper attribution exists.

      On your page, you have placed the byline for this photo at the end of your post. Combined with the lack of link back to my photostream, I feel that this goes against the spirit of the attribution clause of the CC license. More importantly, you have not provided the terms of the license to your viewers.

      Further, the PBS site is clearly a commercial venture. The license that governs use of this photo clearly states that ALL commercial use is prohibited.

      The icing on the cake is the fact that all of this confusion could have been avoided by simply following basic common curtsey and contacting me directly. You have obviously taken the time to find my photo, on a site that provides an easy means of communication. You used a link to my website in your post. Clearly you are more than capable of finding a valid email address to contact me directly regarding the use of my intellectual property.

      It is only fitting that all of this should take place here, on this post. You have penned a call to action, directed at the leaders of this country to take up this new medium and participate with the people. I can not agree with you more, however if those of us who already embrace the culture and community of the Internet can not be bothered to follow its basic tenants, how can we expect anyone else to?

      In closing, I must insist that you immediately cease and desist the illegal and improper use of my intellectual property, either by removing the image, or–more desirably–correcting the issues noted above.


    • Hi Byron,
      Thanks for writing with your concerns about the CC photo I used with this post. While I disagree about whether PBS is a non-commercial site, I tried to create the caption you had asked for to try to give you the attribution you wanted. However, I could not replicate it with this blog’s design and decided to instead remove the photo and use another one.

      I’m sorry we couldn’t work it out.

    • jason

      Vote republican…. We are the future. republicans rule!!

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media