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July 10, 2008

<< American Portraits | New Kinds of Content >>

New Representation

So I’m completely enchanted with the little flurry of activity around Congressman John Culberson. Let our Congress tweet, says Sunlight! “[A] Congressman starting to use Twitter just made our representative democracy real to me” says a Culberson constituent (in the comments)!

I know it sounds hopelessly over-the-top.

But stuff like this — a once-live Qik video feed from somewhere inside the U.S. Capitol, with Culberson turning the camera around on a Fox News reporter — gives me a deep civic thrill.

Deeper than Barack Obama, believe it or not; because for as stirring as Obama’s speeches are, and for as neat as is, I still feel the undiminished distance. Could our presidential candidates get any more remote? Everybody wants a piece of Obama; everybody wants a glimpse. There are layers of advisors, layers of staff, layers of reporters, layers of bloggers, jeez now layers of users who are more into it than I am!

It’s a pyramid, not a mesh.

It’s exactly how I felt about traditional news, back when I was considering working at a newspaper or magazine: How disconnected. How distant.

Contrast to John Culberson’s tweets and his technical difficulties.

Let me be clear: I am not down with Culberson on the issues. But man do I like his style.

And if I had to pick, right now, whether the future of American government is a smart, sophisticated president consulting with his smart, sophisticated staff and making smart, sophisticated decisions in isolation, or a bunch of Members of Congress twittering live to their constituents and making videos for them and connecting them to each other — I’ll take the nerds in the cloakroom.

That sounds reductive, and it is. Probably irresponsible, too. The truth is that Barack Obama as president is going to affect more people, in deeper and more positive ways, than any number of social-media-powered legislators.

But I really do think the long game looks different.

And now Culberson has forced my hand. I’ve been sitting on a future-of-politics scenario for a bit, deciding how best to release it into the wild. But reality is moving faster than my imagination (disconcerting!) so I’d better just let you take a look.

The ballad of Matthew Smoot is here. He’s a Congressman from Michigan, and as our story begins, he’s having a tough time.

I’d love to know what you think.

Culberson update: Democratic Congressman Mike Capuano has an articulate, sensible reply to Culberson. But don’t let this meta-scuffle obscure the fundamental coolness of Qik-streaming from Congress.

Posted July 10, 2008 at 1:54 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Snarkpolitik


I don't know the proper etiquette for this, but I'm going to re-post my comment from the Smoot site here, to make sure I get in on what I anticipate will be a great conversation:

The more I think about this story, the more I agree with your fundamental argument: that even if this forum had minimal effect on how the congressman voted, it would be worth its weight in gold if it helped develop a new kind of political discourse. This election cycle I've gloried in YouTube as a source for escaping sound-bytes. Forum 12 promises more of the same; a way to expand discussion, and to get people to talk to one another reasonably. Many people yearn for such a change, I think: that's why many of us liked McCain back in 2000 and are excited by Obama now. We want to be able to have an active but civil politics, but that may be more about technological systems than about the personalities of candidates.

I really do wonder how Forum 12 would impact all of those special interest groups who coordinate letter-writing campaigns (and to be clear I don't think that special interest groups are necessarily bad). How do they react? Would such an open forum limit their power by making their organization more evident? Or would they just end up being more savvy about turning this new technology to their own ends?

Yeah, I probs shouldn't have splintered the conversation like this. Let's point everything here.

I actually have some practice with this. A lot of local Philly politicians (mostly City Councilpeople and state reps, but even occasionally a congressman or two) post at Young Philly Politics. A lot of the same folks post regularly at PhillyBlog.

I'm not sure exactly what the benefits are to having a forum/site. I can say that it is a really great way for elected officials to communicate with their constituents (and a lot of people who aren't directly their constituents) and vice versa. Journalists and bloggers and ward leaders often jump in too. And a TON of people -- elected officials, their staffs, political organizers -- lurk.

However, I can definitively say that the vast majority of posters aren't teens and seniors, but twenty- and thirty-somethings, and a somewhat smaller set of the middle-aged.

Ah! What's that you say? Real-world experience? Shocking...

Yeah, I actually think the forum format is less useful overall than tools that are easier to engage with -- tools that let you quickly register opinions, or rank competing principles/priorities in order, and then display the community's results in an easy-to-understand way.

Or Digg-like systems for ranking and filtering issues and policies.

Forums (and blog comments) are useful, but they're very "high engagement" -- you need lots of lower-engagement options, too. Lots of plain ol' media.

Most super-contributors were lurkers once :-)

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