For years, wide-eyed journalists, politicos and academics have captured people’s imagination with musings about the many ways the Internet would democratize our society. A decade and a half after the Internet’s emergence, the anticipated transformation is certainly underway. Media, political, and corporate institutions have begun to incorporate readers, constituents and consumers into their regular operational and decision-making processes. However, relative to the initial projections, the pace of change isn’t fast enough – at least to the impatient ones, including us here at MixedInk!
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, government, media, and corporations are hesitant to cede real power to their stakeholders. News reporters and editors don’t want to be fact-checked by their readers because it threatens their perceived status as “experts.” Politicians want complete control over their policies, platforms and messages. Companies want to know what their consumers think, but they don’t want consumers to have a say in decision making.
This reluctance is increasingly beside the point, however. New, more democratic norms are coming to govern the relationship between reporter and audience member, elected official and constituent, company and consumer. This is because free markets and elections provide these institutions with an existential reason to engage citizens transparently and democratically that overrules their hesitance: doing so brings them more votes, more dollars, and more attention.
Another challenge is that the trial and error process of testing social technology takes time. Social processes are often counter-intuitive and difficult to manipulate, so it’s hard to build web-based tools that are a natural social fit. New online tools thrive not because they solve some previously impossible technological problem, but because they provide “elegant organization” that offers an outlet to harness people’s energy in a productive (or at least entertaining) way. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict how people will interact with each other using a new tool in advance. Thus, finding ways to ‘organize elegantly’ requires a slow process of trial and error.
In practice, this has meant that innovative media and political organizations simply try out different tools to see what works, and then, over time, others imitate the tactics that turn out to be successful. Being currently immersed in this trial and error process, the MixedInk team is very much aware of the time it takes; the way people use our private beta site sometimes surprises us. As a startup, however, we don’t face the same risks as those at large, prominent institutions. If things don’t go so well for us, few people will notice. If they fail, everyone pays attention!
There’s plenty of cause for optimism, though. The pace of change seems to have increased within the last several years between the growth of new media and the beginnings of a shift towards more democratic user engagement among corporate, political, and media organizations. As Vanessa mentioned in a recent post, Dell’s IdeaStorm and MyStarbucksIdea are significant innovations in the world of corporate America. Others, like the YouTube/CNN primary debate here in the US and the UK Prime Minister’s “Ask the PM” represent the beginnings of a democratic transformation within the media and political sphere.
To continue our online democracy’s forward progress, it’s important to recognize and address the risks involved with each of these efforts, though. Each one engaged a large, critical mass of stakeholders with an up-front promise to publich, incorporate, and respond to their input in a meaningful way. This sudden, very public democratization of communications meant risking that users might overwhelmingly contradict each institution’s official message and branding. Yet by capitalizing on citizens’ desire to communicate directly with decision-makers, these efforts have been quite successful.
For all of us who aim to contribute to the emerging wave of online democracy, understanding the risks that that innovators like Starbucks, Dell and CNN face can be the difference between success and failure. Only by adequately balancing risk and reward will new social technologies and applications be able to bring our emerging online democracy to its inevitable tipping point. In my next post, I’ll describe a few different models for engaging citizens that provide varying degrees of risk and reward, allowing institutions with a range of risk-aversion and participatory ideals to strike the balance that’s appropriate for them.