Barack Obama's campaign promise to use the Internet to "create a transparent and connected democracy" will be put to the test when he launches a new White House Web site on January 20.
On that day, the Bush administration's stodgy, wheezing version of whitehouse.gov will be carted off to the National Archives in its entirety, leaving precisely no legacy - and no limits.
Obama is already being touted as the first Internet president, but the Internet is about more than e-mail blasts and rallying the likeminded. If he and his team truly embrace the paradigms of the modern Internet -- as defined by blogs and YouTube, Facebook and Google, instant messaging and crowdsourcing, wikis and reader comments -- Obama's whitehouse.gov will bring unprecedented accountability to the White House. It will offer a vastly better way for the American people to relate to their government -- and maybe even learn to trust it again.
Imagine a White House Web site where the home page isn't just a static collection of transcripts and press releases, but a window into the roiling intellectual foment of the West Wing. Imagine a White House Web site where staffers maintain blogs in which they write about who they are and what they are working on; where some meetings are streamed in live video; where the president's daily calendar is posted online; where major policy proposals have public collaborative workspaces, or wikis; where progress towards campaign promises is tracked on a daily basis; and where anyone can sign up for customized updates by e-mail, text message, RSS feed, Twitter, or the social network of their choice.
And that's just for starters. Because the Internet doesn't look kindly on information that just flows one way. To live up to their promises, the president and his staff are going to have to do more than just talk -- they're going to have to listen, and respond. So imagine a Web site where the president regularly answers questions sent in by citizens; where ordinary people can vote up or down items they want brought to the president's attention; and where Americans from across the political spectrum engage in honest debate.
That last part, of course, is the most problematic. The virulence and low signal-to-noise ratio of unrestricted commenting on the Internet has been a source of despair to people who run far less prominent Web sites. One can only imagine the kind of hostility and nuttery the White House site would evoke. But another way to look at it is that the imperative of user participation, along with the inevitably huge demand, provides an opportunity to develop best practices in harnessing mass Internet participation.
The goal should be to create a process whereby good ideas, relevant personal stories, informed opinions and perhaps even consensus on some issues can bubble up from the public. And while that may sound impossible, organizations like Wikipedia provide one model for handling vast quantities of user-submitted content with great if not perfect success. That model calls for a huge number of community volunteers working under the guidance of a small number of staffers. The White House is uniquely positioned to mobilize a small army of volunteers to monitor public comments should it choose that route.
I spoke to several experts who occupy the intersection of technology and politics, and they strongly believe it's time for a cutting-edge White House Web site. New York Law School professor and technology expert Beth Noveck dismisses the current whitehouse.gov as "brochure-ware," and stresses that a key function of the next White House Web site should be to solicit public input. "It's not only about channeling information to the president, it's about creating a national conversation around issues of public importance," she said.
Andrew Rasiej, a Democratic Internet strategist and co-founder of techpresident.com, envisions a whitehouse.gov "where citizens might feel like they are invited to participate in the actual process of governing through the incorporation of their ideas, their energy, and their willingness to hold members of Congress accountable."
"I'm not saying that every single moment inside the White House needs to be a reality show," Rasiej said. "but I do believe that an open and transparent White House will capture the imagination of the American public to be engaged in their civic lives in a way that will transform the country."
And to make sure the site doesn't simply turn into a propaganda vehicle, Steven Aftergood, the head of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, wonders: "Maybe there's a way to institutionalize a dissenting view, so you really have not the pretense of debate, but actual debate, that is accessible to the public... Maybe there's something like the equivalent of a devil's advocate on the White House Web site, who criticizes administration policy." At the very least, it seems to me, some of the site's staffers should have journalistic rather than PR backgrounds.
A 21st-century Web site could even address one of the most serious problems afflicting American public discourse: The inability to agree even on basic facts. Embracing "wiki culture" -- by having members of the public contribute to an evolving body of information and ideas -- could help develop a shared set of facts and assumptions. That could go a long way toward repairing the deep political fissures caused by our increasingly fractured media. It might even help build an American political common ground.
All this may sound like a lot to hope for, but Obama has already shown that he recognizes the transformative power of the Internet. A key part of his Internet-heavy campaign was the my.barackobama.com site, where top staffers and supporters alike wrote blogs, created and joined groups, organized events, raised money and mobilized volunteers. The campaign's tolerance for dissent was tested early in the summer after thousands of Obama's more liberal supporters formed a group opposing his stand on warrantless wiretapping laws. The group was not squelched. To the contrary, Obama posted a response.
And there are already auspicious signs that Obama intends to continue using the Internet in compelling new ways. His transition Web site, change.gov, launched with not only press releases and position papers, but a blog -- and several nascent opportunities for public participation. "The story of bringing this country together as a healed and united nation will be led by President-Elect Obama," the Web site states, "but written by you."
Perhaps the single most striking aspect of the Bush White House has been how opaque it is. More than with any other White House in history, the public has been unable to see in -- and the president and his top aides have been disinclined to look out. This may well have been entirely by design, but the results were disastrous. Inside the bubble, the absence of dissent and lack of accountability were contributing factors to Bush's legacy of poor decision-making, unchecked politicization, unremitting spin and arguably illegal assertions of unfettered power. Outside the bubble, the result has been a deep and abiding mistrust; a loss of faith in the competence of government -- and its good intentions.
The kind of transparency Obama has so far only talked about isn't just a neat campaign promise, it's essential to winning back America's trust and confidence. And after nearly eight years during which the president routinely ignored, mocked or mischaracterized his political opponents, imagine a president and his staff engaging in respectful dialogue with supporters and critics alike. It would be enlivening to our democracy.
The crowning achievement of the Bush-era White House Web site was Barneycam, the online video adventures of the president's Scottish terrier. But the Internet is an enormously powerful social and political force that demands transparency and genuine interactivity -- not pet videos. The public and the press would do well to keep a close eye on the development of the next White House Web site for signs of whether the Obama administration will live up to its potential.
(This post originally appeared on the NiemanWatchdog.org Web site.)
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