This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Sept. 6, Future Tense will join Aventura Capital Partners in Mexico City to host a conference on the “mobile city,” exploring how to make government information freely available to the public.
I've spent the past four years helping federal government agencies become more connected with citizens through social media. But even as Twitter usage has skyrocketed since 2008, the obvious question has nagged: Do citizens really want to become more connected to the government? I recently stumbled upon some answers by forming a subversive democratic experiment: the San Diego Burger Mob. Seriously.
For most people, dealing with the government is limited to transactions like applying for a driver's license, paying taxes, or getting pulled over. Much beyond such necessary inconveniences, an interaction with the government is a sign that something has gone wrong. Nonetheless, many certainly do want to engage with the government. Countless students, activists, and otherwise enthusiastic citizens want to inform policy or otherwise improve how government works. The good news for these people is that social media is driving the cost of organizing to zero. In some cases, that’s bad news for government: Citizens are organizing on the Internet to supplant (Bitcoin) or frustrate (WikiLeaks) official institutions. Certainly, this is not the kind of connection my clients had in mind.
So what’s the point? Beyond simply making government more "social," can the Internet actually improve policy or the quality of governance?
Enter the San Diego Burger Mob. At the beginning of this year, I decided to explore more of San Diego's burger joints and asked Twitter to help me fill out a Google Doc with the best locations. Two things became clear immediately: I was not the only person who wanted to explore San Diego's burgers, and there was little consensus on the city’s best offerings. The Burger Mob was born. The idea is simple: Pick 12 burger joints in San Diego, get as many people as possible to eat at the places throughout the year, and have them fill out a ballot at the end of the year to rank their favorite burgers. We'll use instant runoff voting to discover the best burger.
What does this have to do with democracy? Well, we're organizing people to identify the best of something—just as we organize elections to identify the best policymakers. Besides the obvious difference in outcomes (and consequences), the biggest distinction between the Burger Mob and an election is that the Burger Mob costs nothing. The "organization" of our mob is no more than a Google Doc and a hashtag. Meanwhile, elections are extremely expensive enterprises coordinated by dozens, if not hundreds, of institutions.
But there's another, more interesting difference: The people in the Burger Mob are fully qualified to vote. Their taste buds provide all the expertise necessary to judge a burger. In November, most American voters will not be experts on the ballot initiatives or candidates—local, statewide, or national—they choose. The offerings at the polls are abstractions supposed to represent policy choices to be made in the future. Reducing our policy needs to a few blunt marks on a ballot is a necessity born of the cost of running an election. We can't run a referendum on every little thing. It'd cost too much, and few voters would be qualified to vote on most topics. But that assumes we have to run an election to vote.
The Internet is a never-ending election. Google is worth hundreds of billions of dollars because it learned that a link to a website was essentially a vote for that site’s content. Today's Internet is an ever-expanding set of fractal democracies. We vote billions (trillions?) of times daily through tweets, retweets, pins, repins, reblogs, likes, and favorites, ad infinitum. We can parse these votes based on demographics, and—thanks to mobile devices—by location, too.
For example, earlier this year, our San Diegan neighbors at Invisible Children released the most viral video ever: the Kony 2012 video. Within days, millions of people watched and shared the sleek and harrowing story of child soldiers enslaved by Joseph Kony, an evil warlord. Like antibodies, blog posts emerged just as quickly to refute the video.