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The (Possible) Effect of Social Media on Democracy January 27, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Uncategorized.
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Read Write Web’s article on the superficiality of Obama accepting public questions via platforms like YouTube on today’s State of the Union address made me wonder, not for the first time, if technology will once and for all engender the birth of a true democracy. Semantically, America is not a democracy, it is a republic. We elect officials to speak for us. The opinion of each and every citizen is not taken into account. Logistically, a true democracy has always been impossible. Let’s pretend for a moment that the “digital divide” doesn’t exist; that each and every citizen has access to the internet (which hopefully most do in some form or another, via the public library).  Will the use of social media sites enable us to take a step closer to becoming a true democracy, to having the opinions of every single person heard? Is that something we would even want? Will social media really be able to accomplish such a feat?

Obama is notorious for using Web 2.0 technologies and the internet to gain popular support for his platforms (most notable now, health care reform). And today’s user-interaction with the State of the Union address is just another example of his innovation. Read Write Web asks if these attempts are mostly an illusion, as user questions can easily be ignored or filtered without the knowledge of the public (and within YouTube’s restrictions). Participants will also be using Google Moderator to vote which questions are most important to them. While I agree that this type of interaction is not the same as Obama “holding court”, it is important both in its symbolism and its utility.

From Vanity Fair, click on image for the full article.

It is symbolically important in that it shows the White House to be an entity that cares for the opinion of each and every citizen. It also shows that the White House is not a dinosaur and has embraced technological change. (But we already knew that with our young, charismatic Blackberry-addicted president, right?) And while queries can be easily ignored, if a topic comes up repeatedly enough and with enough force, the White House will become aware of it, whether they acknowledge it or not.

This method of communication is useful quite simply because it is easy and immediate. Using the web is clearly less time consuming than writing letters. The White House, with the help of YouTube and Google, can easily quantify the information, something that would be quite laborious with previous methods of data-mining. The novelty and possible anonymity of the platform will also likely involve citizens who might not otherwise be so vociferous.

Read Write Web further criticizes this method of interaction by arguing that large groups can come together to sway the numbers. But is this really a detriment? Isn’t this what groups have been doing for years in the form of petitions, walk-outs, strikes, and protests? While the concerns of a few may be buried by the concerns of larger, more organized groups, at least this platform will give them a reason, and a way to organize for such future occurrences.

What do you foresee as the possible implications of the confluence of social media and government?

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