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July 14, 2005

Social software and politics

This is something I wrote for the discussion on the WELL; thought it would be worth reposting here:

This has been a high-level discussion of the subjects we cover in the book, but before we're done, we should get to the nitty gritty... the actual technologies and how they're built. Blogs are important in this context, but they're not everything. Along with the ascendance of the blog came a whole social software movement that was gathering steam around 2002. Social software is pretty much any software that supports community or collaborative work over computer networks, i.e. the Internet. Nancy White (http://www.fullcirc.com/) and I had a discussion as I was putting together a presentation for an online conference around that time, and we realized that the real strength of social software was in combining tools, as in the "happenings" Joi Ito set up, with Ross Mayfield's help and input, to bring a bunch of us together online for the discussions that fed into the Emergent Democracy paper we include in _Extreme Democracy_. The happening was multimodal: teleconference plus IRC chat plus wiki (and later QuickTopic for a stage of collaboration on the paper). The chat supported the call by allowing visual cues: you could see when someone wanted to speak, and there was a way for participants to show thumbs up or down (by using a greencard or redcard widget, and there was a yellowcard for a ho-hum response to an idea). The wiki was for note-taking and, later, for collaboration on the text. The first version was Microsoft Word, and that was added to Quicktopic which has a way for you to upload a Word document and gather comments. Finally Joi added a version to his wiki, more comments were added, and that's the piece that I edited for the book.

Social software applications included blogs, content syndication (RSS, Atom), forums, chats, instant messaging, collaborative editing, social network platforms like LinkedIn and Orkut, social bookmarking (del.icio.us), tagging (del.icio.us, flickr), etc. The purpose of my Deanspace piece in the book was to establish that project not just in the context of the Dean campaign, but also in the context of the social software movement, which had become very robust by then, and which influenced Zack Rosen, Neil Drumm et al. to pull that project together. Like many social software instigators, they were influenced by Reed's Law, which is David Reed's insight that the utility or value of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network. (See Reed's essay "That Sneaky Exponential - Beyond Metcalfe's Law to the Power of Community Building" - http://www.reed.com/Papers/GFN/reedslaw.html).

He talks about the power of group-forming networks, and you kind of have to read and digest the whole essay to get it, but here's a relevant quote:

"In 'real' networks, it is important to note that although the total value of optional transactions that involve pairs and groups grows faster than linearly, the total price that can be paid cannot grow that fast. Typically, the consumers of the value have money and attention resources that scale linearly with N. So the law of supply and demand will kick in, lowering prices until the available resources (dollars and attention) are saturated. What's interesting is that this saturation process affects all types of optional transactions-so GFN value, peer transaction value, and broadcast content value all compete for the same resources. Once N grows sufficiently large, GFN transactions create more value per unit of network investment than peer transactions, and peer transactions create more value per unit of network investment than do broadcast transactions. So what tends to happen is that as networks grow, peer transactions out-compete broadcast content in the arena of attention and return on investment. And remarkably, once N gets sufficiently large, GFN transactions will out-compete both of the other categories."

Consider the value for a political campaign that goes post-broadcast, peer-to-peer. That's what Zack et al were seeing, so the idea behind Deanspace was to create, not just a way to build web sites that publish content, but a way to build a network of Dean supporters and establish connections, scale up the network, realize more value as it grows.

One aspect of this that intrigues me is that you can build an effective network that leverages connections without enforcing common belief systems or intentions, so rather than having a "political party" that adheres to a specific platform, you could have a looser association of people who are generally in agreement about somethings but may vary in agreement about others... an build ad hoc coalitions within that space. That's what I was thinking about when I wrote "Nodal Politics" in '97.

My pal Nathan Wilcox has created a way to do effective work through what he and his colleagues call Civic Action Networks (http://www.civicactionnetwork.com/index.php/Part_1:_Civic_Action_Networks), small, effective teams that form to address specific issues. He focuses on the individual teams and how they work; I think the next step would be networking those teams to scale potential efforts.

This isn't what people are thinking about, necessarily, when they talk about the impact of technology on politics. Generally speaking, they're talking about money - how you can raise money more effectively for a campaign using a suite of online tools where the approach is still top-down, still a lot like broadcasting. Moveon's model is a good example. The real value of Moveon is in its growing email list, and its ability to scale that list, but they're not building a network of adherents. They broadcast email alerts, invite people to the site to take action, and solicit donations in the context of those transactions. Moveon tends to do interesting things with the money, and keep people focused on progressive issues that are important, but the core business is growing the list and getting the donations.

Similarly, political campaigns use Internet technology to grow email lists and solicit donations to pay campaign expenses, including broadcast advertising. They also broadcast their message via the web, and they use blogs for that, and for "stickiness."

There's nothing wrong with this: Moveone is important and effective, and political campaigns are growing their understanding of the tools so that they might also facilitate better communication with supporters and constituents in the future.

But the political potential of social software and group-forming networks hasn't been realized quite yet, and that's what Mitch and I and some of the authors of the book were more interested in. _Extreme Democracy_ is a collection of writings that emerge from a context that is not partisan or campaign-oriented. What if we removed our identification with one party or another, and approached issues of policy without that particular baggage? In fact there are many people in the U.S. who aren't well represented because they don't identify with a political party. Maybe one effect of social technology is to bring them into the conversations about policy and national intent.

Posted by Jon Lebkowsky at 7:05 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

July 13, 2005

R.U. Sirius interviews Jon L.

I talk about Extreme Democracy in a podcast interview by R.U. Sirius on his Mondo Globo Network. [Link]

Posted by Jon Lebkowsky at 3:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 6, 2005

Extreme Democracy discussion on the WELL

I'm participating in a two-week discussion of Extreme Democracy on the WELL, one of the oldest and most influential online communities. If you're not a member of the WELL, you can still comment or ask questions by sending them to inkwell@well.com. [Link]

Posted by Jon Lebkowsky at 1:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack