When Web 2.0 Meets Politics

Hillary Clinton is my friend. On MySpace, that is. If I were going to vote for the first candidate that responded to my social networking “friend” request, it would be her. Of course, that’s a silly idea, but with all the hoopla over politicians using new technologies, one might ask: How has Web 2.0 changed the political process?

Web 2.0 generally refers to the explosion of services like social networking sites, wikis, blogs, podcasts, RSS (really simple syndication) feeds and so on. These are the technologies that have helped make the Internet even more interactive and content-rich than it was in the first place and, in this election cycle, these technologies are key.

Social news site, Digg, just announced a partnership with CBS for political coverage and also hosts its own candidates pages. MySpace held its own presidential primary the day before the Iowa caucuses (Barack Obama and Ron Paul won). Facebook cosponsored the Republican and Democratic debates with ABC and also publishes its own polling data. The candidates are embracing these technologies as well.

Power to the Individuals
Sen. Barack Obama used professional networking site LinkedIn to ask “How can the next president better help small business and entrepreneurs thrive?” and at a recent speech, Hillary Clinton suggested that America “have a government blogging team.” On the Republican side, Ron Paul has raised millions by harnessing the open nature of the Net, and Rudy Giuliani’s strange behavior when he interrupted his NRA speech to answer a cell phone call from his wife was viewed more than 20,000 times on YouTube .

Clearly, American citizens no longer need to rely on mainstream media for their political data. They can now get it from numerous services all over the Web and respond just as quickly so others can see their opinion. Interactive politics is here, but is more data making things better?

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, sees both the dark and light sides to the new political environment. “Web 2.0 is the best mass communications medium that’s been invented so far because you can personally direct the issues,” he said. Indeed, the idea of “power to the people” should now be reiterated by all savvy politicians as “power to the individuals.”

On the downside, however, the danger is that too much information may “make people unwilling to change their views.” If that sounds counter-intuitive, Hoffman has an explanation. He notes that intellectuals have always been concerned about the Orwellian Big Brother who will attempt to control people by controlling the big TV in front of them, but he says that perhaps the threat now is the Huxley Brave New World version of soma addiction. Hoffman worries about a personalized “massive inundation of information and massive stimulation” that creates a situation where people stop thinking and making real decisions because they can choose to listen only to others who hold similar opinions.

A More Transparent Government

Of course, disengagement in real debate also happened before the Net, and even cable, when there were only three television networks and fewer choices. If anyone wanted to stop thinking and avoid decisions back then, it was arguably easier to accomplish. Another worry, meanwhile, is that politics has become a new form of entertainment, one that Web 2.0 is well suited to serve.

Indeed, whether or not Hillary cracks her voice is followed just as closely as Britney’s latest custody battles. Even Oprah has jumped into the process, actively campaigning for Obama. However, with all this celebrity activity, are voters paying attention to the real issues or has the political process become just another star watching game made more efficient by “always-on” tech tools?

“People self-certify what is good content and bad content,” says Vince Vasquez, policy director for the Steve Francis for Mayor exploratory committee in San Diego. “No one will watch a YouTube video with bad ratings and low view hits.” That’s certainly true, but the standards by which people choose videos may be questionable.

In politics, more information is generally a good thing, and that’s what Web 2.0 helps to provide. The best everyone can hope for, not only during but also after the election, is that new tech tools provide citizens with better ways to understand and watch government. The more transparent government becomes, the less likely it is to be corrupt, and that’s something everyone would like to see.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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