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.
Invisible Children was dubbed a problematic organization, and lists to information from more credible government organizations were compiled. The speed of this emergent fact checking was impressive, but there was a peculiar violence to the response that left me uneasy. There is no doubt: The Kony 2012 video was simplistic and exploitative. But complaints about it quickly extended into ad hominem attacks on its creators.
It felt like a turf battle. The organizations used to monopolizing foreign-policy discussions—and begging the complacent to get engaged—were suddenly forced to educate millions who didn’t care about Uganda the day before on the impropriety of Invisible Children’s simplistic idea. While it’s great that Invisible Children greatly expanded the conversation about Kony, this is not how the Internet should inform policy.
In fact, Kony 2012 perfectly demonstrates the flaws with the usual system of focusing as much attention as possible onto one abstract idea. It willfully followed the script of a presidential campaign with Kony as its anti-candidate, but it didn't work outside the context of a national election. The Internet allows for—and seems to demand—a more democratic and nuanced approach.
Over time, agencies will learn how to interpret the data generated by Internet activity (votes) and translate it into better policy. Meanwhile, subject matter experts will start giving input (voting) on more specialized subjects. It's easy to find people outraged by warlords on social media today, but it's still hard to find people with the skills to depose them. This will change over time as policy students representing a range of interests grow up using social media to collaborate with one another, and the greater public, as a matter of course. Smaller policy discussions will then take place between agencies and smaller cohorts of experts.
By “votes” and “voting,” I don’t mean casting official virtual ballots for every decision, of course. The information and data from each conversation will instead be tantamount to taking the nation’s temperature. But the outcome is essentially the same—and this will be much more accurate than the polls currently used by politicians, businesses, and agencies.
The key to make this happen is improved communication. Agencies need to use social media to communicate with their citizens as citizens communicate with one another: briefly, frequently, and directly. When agencies can communicate at the speed of the Internet, they'll be able to use it to inform policy and program design much more quickly.
NASA's has already demonstrated how agencies can benefit from this. Before they used Twitter to share updates from the Phoenix Mars lander in 2008, updates on space missions were restricted to periodic news conferences. Now, people get to follow the daily lives of the engineers, software developers, and scientists who make space missions happen. It’s proven to be an extremely compelling way to get people interested in science and engineering, which is one of NASA’s core goals. It won't be long before NASA's teams regularly get useful insights on how to run their missions from the public in return.
And then, one day: Mars Burger Mob.
Also in the Future Tense package on government and open data: why Yelp and the government should share data; the fight to keep data free from political influence; and how Mexico is using open data to move beyond its authoritarian past.