Soyeshin’s Blog

Archive for February 2009


Civic hacking: a new agenda for e-democracy

The political potential of the internet lies not in connecting people to politicians, still less in online voting; it lies in the possibility of bringing citizens together to help themselves, argues a veteran of online politics.

Representative democracy seems troubled. People are ignoring it. It is not exactly hip with the kids. A little like the unfortunate uncle who gate crashed the party, it hangs around trying to convince people that its magic tricks are interesting.

Electronic democracy (e-democracy) is viewed squarely within the remit of representative democracy. ‘The Internet’ is the new trick. This amazing device – full of youth, verve, and energy – might just be The Answer to its problems.

This, give or take, is the UK government’s current strategy. It recognises that our democratic system, while not exactly broken, needs pepping up. In particular, it recognises that young people, who tend to be keen on all things wired, frankly do not see the point of politics. It reflects the fact that the political classes are hunkered down under a big tent marked ‘disengagement’. The Blair government thinks the internet, this marvel of the modern age, can help.

At best, this view is half right. Networked technology can help representative democracy a little, but it is unlikely to be able to help a lot. It comes down to a basic problem: if someone isn’t interested in politics, and they don’t see the point in taking part, doing it online is not going to help much.

The good news is that there may be a better way. The internet can help to improve the civic lives of ordinary people, but only if it is based on a different principle. E-democracy should not be primarily about representation, participation, or direct access to decision makers. First and foremost, it should be about self-help.

Public investment in e-democracy should be about allowing people to help themselves, their communities, and others who are interested in the same things as them. As I will explain, the centre of such a strategy should be state support for what I call ‘civic hacking’, or the development of applications to allow mutual aid among citizens rather than through the state.

If you are not interested in politics, electronic politics will not help

The current British government has got the right question, but the wrong answer. Its question is: how can we use the internet to help people get the most out of civic life, politics, and the way in which they are governed? This is based on a fairly sound analysis of the current problems of democracy. Steven Coleman and John Gotze, in their pamphlet Bowling Together, put this analysis rather well:

“There is a pervasive contemporary estrangement between representative and those they represent, manifested in almost every western country by falling voter turnout; lower levels of public participation in civic life; public cynicism towards political institutions and parties; and a collapse in once-strong political loyalties.”

So far so good. But Coleman and Gotze, and by extension the British government, come up with the wrong conclusion. They seem to think that people are in some way held back from participation. If we made it easier – step forward ‘the internet’ – they might decide to get involved. If we made participation in traditional processes a little less tedious, the punters would come back. There would be greater citizen involvement in policy making.

The assumption seems to be that if we make the entry route a little sexier (electronic voting not ballots, online consultation not paper consultation) it will make the system work. To be fair, it might make a difference. The excellent British website Fax Your MP, for instance, notes that “67% of our users report that they have never contacted their MP before” suggesting that new ways of access can bring “mostly new participants to the debate”. But this is by no means the only avenue open to government.

Reciprocity online

The opportunity is the construction of a civic space in where citizens talk to each other, rather than to the state. An analogy will help explain this. If you are stuck in a computer game, what do you do? Gamers today – and remember around three in ten people play computer games – will go to a gaming community online, and ask others for advice. They will almost always find someone willing to help them overcome the challenge. Other gamers will help for a variety of reasons: they may get respect for their knowledge; their standing in the community will improve; or they may simply be in a good mood that day. But mostly they do it on the principle of reciprocity.

Common in social capital literature, reciprocity means nothing less than you scratch my back, I will scratch yours. This principle is limited if there are only two people, and only two backs. It works better if reciprocity is distributed: I will scratch your back, because this will create a system in which back scratching is the norm, and when I need my back scratched, someone will do it for me.

In politics, as in computer games, reciprocity means helping someone because, at some unspecified point in the future, you will need someone else to help you out too. It is the rational realisation of ‘do unto others as you would have done to yourself’.

What you definitely do not do when stuck in a computer game (or how to load it, or how to make it work better) is e-mail the software designer and ask them to make the game easier or better. Yet this is precisely the current British government’s strategy for e-democracy. Got a problem? Go take part in an impenetrable consultation exercise that might, in some distant way, improve the system. Not exactly a hot selling proposition.

The game analogy holds because, for most people, politics is like being stuck in a really difficult computer game. Government bureaucracy – the software designer – is a total irrelevance to their daily lives. Citizens rub up against the state in numerous complicated ways: bins need to be taken out, unemployment benefits collected, and doctors visited. But the process of deliberative politics is not part of everyday life.

This is why we have a pluralist theory of democracy. Interest groups, the media, and other functional groups represent the interests of people in a battle of ideas. The basic foundation of democracy – that I should be able to have a fair shot at influencing a decision that affects me (if I can be bothered to) – sits within this framework.

In everyday life, however, most people encounter problems. Some of these problems are caused, not solved, by the action of the state. By this I do not mean theoretical concepts such as regulatory capture, inefficient use of public money, or government disconnection from the views of ordinary people. I mean that tax forms are a real pain. I mean that paying council tax is complicated, and finding a good school for your daughter is time consuming. Starting a new business is a nightmare, and trying to work out how much of a pension contribution you should be making is difficult. These are everyday problems that government is pretty good at creating, but not very good at fixing.

These problems are exactly the same as getting stuck in a computer game. They are life problems – obstacles to be overcome. The best way to overcome them is to find someone else who has done it before, and get them to help you. And this is where the internet can really help.

The democracy application

Network technology is very good at bringing people together, if they have a reason for getting together in the first place. It is, as anyone who has surfed will know, a veritable haven for cranks and obsessives of all varieties. But it is also the most incredible fund of distributed intelligence ever conceived.

It allows the aggregation of distributed and networked knowledge, and makes it accessible to pretty much anyone with a bit of skill and a modem. For computer games players, or financial investors, or stamp collectors, it is a dream come true. It can also be for citizens.

The question is: how can you translate this self-evident quality of the network into an application which can help people overcome life problems, or participate in civic communications with others interested in the same issue? At present, this is the problem: you can’t. Why not? Because no one has developed the application.

Application is another way of saying programme or software. It is a thing that uses the power of the internet in a relevant and useful way. Internet Explorer is an ‘application’ which allows users to see HTML code as web pages. More famously, Napster, the music file sharing system, was an application that allowed you to download music. It was developed by a 19-year-old called Shawn Fanning.

Fanning’s story is internet folklore. A young techy gets an idea. After a considerable amount of time spent in his bedroom, he developed an application that would allow others like him, albeit illegally, to swap compressed music files. It took off, and the music industry will never be the same again. Other applications have since been written which do the same thing, but better or faster or with less central control. But it needed an application to work in the first place.

The point is that it required someone to develop the application. Napster was useable, cool, and fulfilled a previously unavailable function. It introduced file sharing – or peer-to-peer (P2P) technology – to a mass audience.

Andrew Schapiro, author of The Control Revolution, thinks that Napster remains the defining lesson in how the internet changes static systems: “when you are thinking about this always ask ‘Napster is to music as X is to Y’.” So: Napster is to music as what is to politics? Who is developing Citizster, or Polster?

The problem is, we do not know yet. But, somewhere, someone should be developing it. My contention is that the role for the state should be to fund people to do this. They should be giving money to civic-minded groups, or 19-year-old kids, to develop applications that will help meet social goals.

This is exactly what happens in broadcasting, where the state (and by extension all of us) ladles out millions every year to develop socially beneficial television and radio programmes. This is done, quite rightly, because it is socially useful. The same should be true with software. I call this idea ‘civic hacking’.

Hacking in this case does not mean computer piracy, or breaking into computer systems. Instead I take the original meaning, a process of designing software in an open collaborative way. It is defined as: “The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.” A Hacker is someone who follows these principles in the development of software, not someone who tries to electronically break into Fort Knox. Click for more ‘Hacker-information

Funding civic hacking

The website Meetup is a good example of civic hacking. It is not an application as such, but it is based on much the same idea. The site allows people with common interests to meet up with each other. Let us imagine that Mr Kennedy moved to a new town, and wanted to meet other people who were interested in the works of J S Mill, the principles of social justice, and popular news quiz shows. But Mr Kennedy does not know anyone like that. He could go on to Meetup, and register his interests. When enough other people have done the same, the site sends you an e-mail and suggests you meet for a drink.

Equally, the British website UpMyStreet recently launched a site called Conversations, in which people from a local area can initiate discussions about topics of interest in their street or local area. Both are a simple idea. They will not make anyone a gazillion dollars, but they could become useful tools for the social capitalist and ways of making social connections. And both required someone to develop software to make it happen.

A civic hacking fund could help develop similar ideas. At the moment there is a market failure, in as much as people tend not to make money off these types of application, no matter how socially useful they are. The applications that can help people help each other need state funding to get going.

I stress this is not the total answer. It will not end disengagement as we know it. It will be completely useless for people who are not online. It will also not be any help to people who cannot be bothered with politics full stop. But then these are the sorts of people who, for the foreseeable future, are not going to go anywhere near a political website anyway.

But, in a decade or so, everyone in the country will be online. Most people will have made the internet part of their everyday life. By this time we need to have developed useful programmes – Napsters for civic life, Meetups for democracy – which people will want to use. And that means we need to start doing so now.

The e-democracy ethic

The question is simple: what is the ethic of e-democracy? What is the underlying principle that should guide us in this process of development? The current consensus is that money and time should be spent developing new ways of allowing citizens to interact with parliament and the state. It claims that representation is the ethic of e-democracy. I disagree.

Marshal McLuhan’s dictum was: “The medium is the message”. At base, this means that certain media, or mediums, are good at doing different things. The internet is peculiarly effective at connecting groups of people together. In fact, this is what it does best.

So, a sensible strategy would start on this principle. But the people it should be connecting are not citizens and parliamentarians, or voters and civil servants. It should be connecting ordinary people with other ordinary people. And there should be applications that help these people to help each other. A programme supporting civic hacking can do this.

This should become the ethic of e-democracy: mutual-aid and self-help among citizens, helping to overcome civic problems. It would encourage a market in application development. It would encourage self-reliance, or community-reliance, rather than reliance on the state.

Such a system would be about helping people to help themselves. It would create electronic spaces in which the communicative power of the internet can be used to help citizens help each other overcome life’s challenges. Most importantly, by making useful applications, it would help make participatory democracy seem useful too.

Bottom line: it is a political project. It needs backers. Any champion of e-democracy should take up the fight.

NEWSWEEK COVER: The Facebook Effect

The August, 20-27 double issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, August 13), “The Facebook Effect” looks at how Facebook, the wildly popular networking site is growing up and facing new challenges to become a fixture in the digital age; excerpts from the Newsweek/Kaplan “How to Get Into College Guide,” the “25 Hottest Schools;” and a look at what schools across the nation are doing to beef up security and improve student mental health. Plus: how IEDs are changing modern warfare. (PRNewsFoto/NEWSWEEK)


 Facebook has Revolutionized College Life and now it is out for the Rest of  the World
A Growing Number of Users are no Longer in College, but Facebook may not be the Perfect Tool for 
Non-Students Just yet

    NEW YORK, Aug. 12 /PRNewswire

Facebook revolutionized the way college students communicate with each other since its creation in 2004,
but it has also become a tool for people who are no longer students.
Facebook officials claim that more than half its 35 million active users
are not college students, and that by the end of this year less than 30
percent of Facebook users will sport college IDs.
    (Photo: )

     For the cover package featured in the August 20-27 double issue of
Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, August 13), Mark Zuckerberg, the
23-year-old Harvard dropout who started the site, recently met with Senior
Editor Steven Levy and explained that Facebook is (1) not a
social-networking site but a "utility," a tool to facilitate the
information flow between users and their compatriots, family members and
professional connections; (2) not just for college students, and (3) a
world-changing idea of unlimited potential. But the nub of his vision
revolves around a concept he calls the "social graph."
    As Zuckerberg describes it, the social graph is a mathematical
construct that maps the real-life connections between every human on the
planet. Each of us is a node radiating links to the people we know. "We
don't own the social graph," he says. "The social graph is this thing that
exists in the world, and it always has and it always will. It's really most
natural for people to communicate through it, because it's with the people
around you, friends and business connections or whatever. What [Facebook]
needed to do was construct as accurate of a model as possible of the way
the social graph looks in the world. So once Facebook knows who you care
about, you can upload a photo album and we can send it to all those people
    Newsweek reports that 1 million people a week are flocking to Facebook.
And the international push is only beginning. Zuckerberg told Levy that
Facebook is the top Web site in Canada, and that the geographic network
with the most Facebookers is London. While the site is now available only
in English, Zuckerberg says that versions in other languages will appear
soon, making his goal of having Facebook become the center of online life,
appear possible. But the question remains, can Facebook be as much a
presence in the life of graduates and geezers as it is to college students?
Zuckerberg can't see why not. "Adults still communicate with the people
they're connected with."
    Despite the need to communicate, Facebook may not be the perfect
networking tool for many non-students just yet. At this point, much of the
grammar of the site (as well as much of the first wave of applications) are
still tilted toward student life. David Rodnitzky, 35, a San Francisco
marketing executive, was having a fine time on Facebook until he installed
a widget called "My Questions." Unbeknownst to him, it sent out a query to
people on his friend list, specifically: "Do you kiss on the first date?"
"Here I was, asking some of my company's venture capitalists, along with
some of my guy friends, if they kiss on the first date," says Rodnitzky.
"Probably not the best way to interact." Nor is it clear whether grown-ups
embrace the new SuperPoke third-party application: instead of a mere poke
(the equivalent of saying "hey you" online) you can bite, slap, bump,
spank, lick, grope or head-butt friends, acquaintances and, uh, business
    Zuckerberg and his team feel certain that the Facebook idea will trump
all these concerns. He's built a superhigh-IQ engineering team at the Palo
Alto, Calif., Facebook headquarters. "Absolutely yes," says Facebook's COO,
Owen Van Natta, to the question of whether it will change the world of 30-,
40- and 50- year-olds the way it has on campus. He then amends the question
to conform to the company's new unofficial, and weirdly defensive, motto:
it's not just students. "Facebook did not change college life, but it
changed the lives of the early adopters ... many of whom were in college.
We're entering a phase where every single day we have more people over 25
entering Facebook than any other demographic. So, absolutely, yes."
    The cover package also includes the debate over why people love and
hate Facebook. Correspondent Kurt Soller who has been a member since his
last year in high school says he loves Facebook because the site has
allowed him the freedom to build new relationships while still remaining in
touch with old friends. On the opposite side of the love/ hate debate,
Correspondent Sarah Kliff writes that although she understands the value of
Facebook, she hates it. Kliff writes that the constant monitoring and
updating takes up too much time that can be spent on more important things
and it forces users to obsess over "dull details" rather than focus on
connecting with others.
    (Read cover story at

Why everyone’s a winner

It was, as the Sun might say, the web wot won it. Barack Obama’s election was one in which the world felt involved and it wasn’t just because of the historic nature of the election or the power of the job. I lost count of the number of times I’ve had to fight back the tears watching viral videos and the numbers suggest I wasn’t alone.

Obama’s campaign team is everywhere online: YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook, whose co-founder Chris Hughes worked for the campaign from early last year. They mobilised supporters and organised communities, registering 1.5 million volunteers through and raising $600m from 3 million people. Obama’s campaign also built a consensual database of 3m mobile numbers by promising that in return, supporters would get campaign news before the media. And so they did almost immediately with the announcement of Joe Biden as vice-presidential candidate. “It was a masterclass in political campaigning – a high water mark,” says Mark Flanagan, head of strategic communications for No 10. “They have built on the lessons from Howard Dean, and let people build their own networks. was inspired.” Obama even managed to pull off intimate discussions with major donors over dinner, posted to the campaign’s YouTube account. “He’s just a fantastic political communicator. There’s no sense of artifice – just a melding of the candidate and the human being,” says Flanagan.

The web is built on technology that is primarily for communication, and not publishing. That dynamic is the source of its power and, crucially, its intimacy. What social media represents – and what fed Obama’s victory – is a direct engagement and communication between friends, contacts and families. When we share ideas, opinions and information they become part of that intimate, trusted network in our own small corner of the internet. Our subconscious is hard-wired to assume that faces we see regularly are our own friends (explaining our preoccupation with celebrity), and so we feel that we know Obama because we’ve spent so much time with him. Yet it was a massive night for TV when the results broke on Tuesday. Glued to the live TV screens in Chicago’s Grant Park, one reveller joked it was “probably the largest audience CNN had ever had”.

Some 1.3 million of us dutifully tuned into the BBC, its best ever US election audience, compared with 300,000 viewers for ITV. Yet the corporation’s lacklustre and painfully cautious results coverage failed to capture the excitement of a historic night because of the BBC’s decision to try to kill both the US and UK audiences with one stone. The result was a panel of mostly old, grey pundits, some valiant padding between results and Jeremy Vine turning his back on viewers to fiddle with a stroppy touchscreen. Even Fox News did better, calling more wins first than any other broadcaster – 16 according to PoliticsHome. Three blogs – the Unapologetic Mexican, Pandagon and Blue Indiana – all correctly predicted 19 out of 20 results for the key battle states, and FiveThirtyEight built a solid following of readers of its comprehensive election stats. Nielsen reports that, which has a tradition of multimedia journalism, saw the biggest percentage increase in users, up 113% to 2.31 million on November 4. Web TV viewing was up threefold in the UK overnight. Nearly 5.5 million Facebookers told friends they had voted through a widget on the site. And Twitter, awash with reaction and news, not only stayed up all night but saw a 46% increase in typical traffic and a 40% growth spurt in new accounts. Twitter updates even made it on to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart’s superb results night show: Indecision 2008.

Obama’s campaign accounted for half of all online political advertising this year at $8m – a fact that won’t have escaped Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt, who is reportedly on the shortlist for a chief techie role in Obama’s administration.

The web has helped to inspire and empower a generation that has rejected political apathy. Obama’s team used technology to make issues personal and relevant by giving people ownership of the campaign. It wasn’t a complicated strategy.

It felt like Christmas morning, that euphoria of waking up to Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park. We know it can’t be Christmas every day, and I can’t say I’m surprised that there’s already a Facebook group calling for his impeachment. But the administration has already turned the campaign slogan into his new domain – Can we keep on making history with him? Yes – I do believe we can.


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