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A Working Theoretical Blueprint for the Internet and Democracy Project

Last week my fellow research assistant, Josh Goldstein, and I had the opportunity to chat with Yochai Benkler about the Internet and Democracy Project.

In addition to being a Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and Faculty co-Director at the Berkman Center, Prof. Benkler is also the author of the influential book The Wealth of Networks, which discusses the new nonmarket collaborative political economy that the Internet makes possible.

During the conversation, Prof. Benkler drew a rough outline of the ways in which he thinks that the Internet influences democracy. I am reproducing those categories below in the hopes that they will serve as a starting point for continued debate and refinement. Developing a theoretical framework for how the Internet influences democracy is one of the goals of the Internet and Democracy Project.

I am reproducing the categories as they appeared on the white board. If anything is unclear, please ask a question in the comments section.

1. Pipeline

2. Public Sphere
diverse sources
semiotic/cultural democracy

3. Transparency/Accountability
distributed ombudsmen

4. Participation in Government

town halls

5. Political Organizing

Orange Revolution

6. Something New
new type of political behavior made possible by the Internet
effective distributed action

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Does the Internet Really Empower Citizens?

Our friends over at the Kennedy School have added grist to the ongoing debate over the impact of the Internet on democracy and democratic processes at a symposium and launch of an important new book, Information Technology and Governance: From Electronic Government to Information Government. Many contributors to the book along with editors Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and David Lazer participated in the day-long symposium on November 14th, 2007 at the Kennedy School of Government.

With regard to enhancing citizen participation and government accountability through the Internet, some of the most interesting issues discussed in the symposium for the Internet & Democracy Project and our research are in the following areas:

i) Internet-based participation of citizens in government policy-making;
ii) Accountability of government through citizen’s access to relevant information about the government;
iii) The relationship between political mobilization and the evolving flows of publicly relevant information among citizens.

On the first issue, Cary Coglianese stipulates that while “electronic rule-making” has broadened opportunities for citizen participation, it has not really ”revolutionized” participatory decision-making, as many “techno-optimists” (as he termed them) predicted. However, Coglianese does see the possibility of a new information class that does not necessarily require physical proximity to decision-makers to exert influence.

Regarding accountability of government through increased public information, Herbert Burkert warns against the conventional approach of electronic governance in limiting itself mostly to citizen services and thus undermining the importance of providing relevant information to citizens to contribute towards government accountability. He argues in favor of laws and regulations that will require governments to disclose this information. He also emphasizes the need for civil society to be vigilant and use this information to its advantage in order to hold governments more accountable.

On the issue of political mobilization and the flow of information among citizens, Matthew Hindman takes a cautious view by saying that the information flow among citizens has not necessarily broadened the scope for political participation and mobilization significantly. The information flow is still limited within a certain elite information class.

Our hats off to the editors of the book for investigating these important issues that we hope will spawn further research into this important area—it certainly has given us much to think about in our own research agenda.

Civic Engagement and the Internet: Online Volunteers

The Internet assists social change campaigns by making participation easier. You don’t need to go to a particular location to volunteer or even write a check to donate. It’s just point and click, point and click. But by taking advantage of the online medium, many organizations are losing the benefit of the face-to.face campaign: getting the most out of each volunteer.

[Contents: An Offline Example: The Local Soup Kitchen / Applying These Lessons Online: Freeing a Blogger / How Small Campaigns Can Solve the Volunteer Utilization Problem / Solutions for Big Campaigns: Barack Obama’s Campaign for President / Pitfalls of the Strategy: Don’t Pester Your Volunteers ]

An Offline Example: The Local Soup Kitchen

In the good old days, people used to participate in local civic organizations. You would spend a Sunday at the soup kitchen, or Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Red Cross. These organizations understood how to get the most out of each volunteer because they knew each volunteer. Mona would come in twice a week for three hours to make meals at the soup kitchen. Esther also volunteered twice a week and was also a member of the Board of Directors. Alice, the Director, volunteers full-time for the organization. Ralph, on the other hand, gives a donation of $100 every year, but no more.

Each of these people was giving their maximum participation. This was achieved through constant communication between the Director of the soup kitchen and each volunteer. When Alice noticed that Esther was coming in every week to volunteer, she asked her if she wanted to take on some leadership responsibility by joining the Board of the Directors. Esther accepted. Alice asked the same question of Mona, who also volunteered weekly, but Mona said that with the responsibility of her other civic activities, she couldn’t give the time. Alice was able to get both Mona and Esther to give their maximum participation to the food bank.

How can we express the idea of different people giving their “maximum participation” to a civic organization or activist campaign? It is not as if there is one maximum. Esther’s maximum is volunteering and leadership. Mona’s maximum is just volunteering. Ralph’s maximum is writing a check once a year.

We can represent different levels of civic participation graphically:
food bank

In the graph above, the bottom axis measures the amount of time each volunteer commits to the soup kitchen. Ralph, who writes a check once a year, is at the far left with 5 minutes a year. Alice, who volunteers full-time at the soup kitchen is at the far right of the graph with 40 hours worked per week.
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Cultural tailoring of online tools: a look at Korea’s Cyworld

Cultural differences transfer directly online – the same digital idea may succeed greatly in one culture and simultaneously flop in another depending on how well it is designed to tap into the indigenous culture. Online tools being newly introduced to developing countries must be custom-tailored to fit.

It’s been over a year since Cyworld, Korea’s largest social networking service, launched in the States – and a relatively silent year at that. When Cyworld U.S. launched in August 2006, the technology media buzzed about its prospects of trumping MySpace and creating a new sensation in the online social networking business.

While it is a bit too early to tell, Cyworld surely has not made an impressive entrance. It is not that they didn’t do the research. Prior to launch, SK Telecom, the owner of Cyworld, created a special task force that consulted over eight months with American trend-spotting firms like LookLook in order to tap into the idiosyncrasies of the American user base.

Among the changes made was a cutting down of the “cutesy” factor. While this kind of design sells in Asia and particularly to women, it doesn’t cut it in the States. The range of ‘mini-me’s or personal avatars, had to be expanded to include users of various races and the overall features were scaled back from the cherubic look of the Korean version. In terms of market research, wary of the fact that the American social networking business is close to saturated with services like MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and Xanga, Cyworld U.S. decided to target a slightly younger audience of girls in between grade school and high school. Yet despite such efforts, there has been little news of success.

Perhaps, Cyworld is missing the point in that changes to design and appeal are not enough. Sure, users of different countries have distinct cultures that dictate their preferences of look and feel. But maybe what is at issue here is that different cultures have different conceptions of social networking entirely.

Cyworld’s buddy system is based on the Korean concept of rating the distance of family members. Husband and wife are 0 chons – the metric for familial distance – apart. Parents and children are 1 chons, and on and on. This is where Cyworld gets the name for its buddy system, where friends are called 1 chons. The intricate friend rating system allows users to rate amongst their friends several tiers and designate privacy settings accordingly. The culture’s social network is not so much an insider/outsider system, but one of varying degrees of insiders. For American users, this kind of buddy system may just seem cumbersome and unnecessary.

Moreover, unlike the States, Korea is a homogeneous and relatively small country. Given that, the social circles are more close-knit: everyone knows, or at least knows about, almost everybody else with in a relevant social circle. There are a handful of high-class high schools across the nation whose alumni go to the top schools, creating a repetitive circle of people. “People news” about not celebrities, but about the pseudo-celebrities among everyday people is much celebrated.

In such a country and culture, Cyworld is a sensation. It allows for a peak into the private life of people that you sort of know, and hence, is interesting. There is even a separate jargon dedicated to the act going through people’s sites to find other people of acquaintance called “pado,” or literally, riding the wave. This – not the cutesy avatars and mini-homepages – is the main source of Cyworld’s success in Korea. It taps into the social dynamic of the culture and knows how to work it. In a country like the States – a heterogeneous, individualistic and large country – such a social networking model doesn’t hit an instant chord.

The case of Cyworld U.S. is indicative of a critical aspect digital pioneers must take note of when introducing new tools into developing societies. The model or infrastructure of the same concept need be varied to resonate with the culture. For instance, the same idea of an online social networking tool can simultaneously fail or succeed in different countries depending on how well it can resonated with the indigenous culture.

On Mobiles and the Kenyan Election

Africa is often left out of the Internet and democracy discourse. I believe there are several reasons for this. First, some find it difficult to identify a robust civil society, where citizens challenge authorities on the basis of issues, not just power. Second, discussions on the African blogosphere are often more related (and rightly so) to using technology creatively to alleviate poverty instead of take part in the political process.

I believe that Kenya provides the best challenge to this stereotype. Long home to the most robust blogosphere in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa, Kenya has utilized the Internet and mobile technology to keep their leaders accountable in creative ways. The most prominent project is mzalendo: Eye on Parliament, a volunteer effort created by young people who were ‘frustrated by the fact that it has been difficult to hold MP’s accountable for their performance largely because information about their work has been inaccessible.’ Further, Kenyan blogosphere meetups were the inspiration for similar efforts in Uganda and elsewhere.

Kenya will be a fascinating place to watch in the next few months as the nation prepares for late December elections. How will technology be mobilized for civic ends? One new initiative is called Voices of Africa (VOA), an effort by the Dutch-run Africa Interactive Media Foundation, which aims to bring powerful mobile technology to journalists. VOA’s pilot program is currently active in 4 African countries. Specifically in Kenya, journalists are receiving mobile phones with high-speed General Packet Radio System (GPRS) connections that allow them to upload large amounts of data, including video and audio. As Kenya VOA coordinator Evans Wafula says, “Technology has to be incorporated in journalism. The telephone is used to document, it’s a complete office. It takes human rights to the next level; perpetrators can be held accountable.”

In a nation where nearly half the population believes that election fraud regularly takes place, and where Daniel Arap Moi’s legacy of corruption still lingers, it will be fascinating to explore whether Internet and mobile phones can help keep leaders accountable.

Cross-posted at In An African Minute

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Grassroots Campaign Fundraising Hits $4 Million

Trevor Lyman, a supporter of libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul, decided to help his preferred candidate raise money. He bought the domain, the purpose of which was to encourage people to make a small donation on that day. The campaign was ridiculously successful. This past Monday, the site raised $4 million for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.

Interestingly enough, the site itself did not even collect the donations, but rather sent site visitors on the the official campaign site,, to make their donation.

The value of the web site was thus not in raising money, but as a virtual billboard which other sites and could blogger could link to. “There’s no officialness about it in any sense. It’s just a website that said ‘hey let’s all donate money on this day,’” Lyman said to The Politico. “And once the banners were in place and people could start spreading links, it just propagated virally. And that’s really it.”

This is interesting on several levels. First, it raises the hopes of netroots-watchers like me, who were so excited by the use of the Internet to decentralize and democratize the campaign process in 2004 under Howard Dean and have been disappointed at the lack of innovative online strategies for 2008.

Here is a positive indication that we are continuing to make progress in engaging ordinary voters in the political campaign process. The reason I have this hope is that this is an example of 3 innovations in citizen engagement in presidential campaigns:

1. A private citizen who was completely unconnected to the campaign (Trevor Lyman) had a significant impact on the campaign not because of his personal wealth and traditional power (individual elites have always been influential) but rather due to his ability to inspire and pursuade other citizens. Other countries, like South Korea, have already seen the decisive power of independent citizens to influence political campaigns. Perhaps the US will too.

2. The $4 million was raised through micro-donations rather than big $2000 checks from wealthy donors. Micro-donations are not new (Howard Dean proved their value in 2004) but they are nonetheless critical in the struggle to re-focus campaigns on the needs of citizens rather than the needs of elites. Whoever holds the purse-strings owns the candidates, and if a candidate is beholden to ordinary citizens for his financial well-being, these are the concerns that will guide that candidate’s policy.

3. This technique already has a name – “viral e-bundling” – which refers to the ability of a low-cost viral campaign to bundle small donations into a lump sum with influence. This is now an official campaign technique, so look for other candidates to start using this tactic too. That doesn’t mean that they will succeed. The key to viral marketing is that an individual only passes on the “virus” to a friend if they think it has value. You cannot buy a viral campaign, you must inspire one. The failure of a viral campaign by one of the front-runners would be a huge embarrassment, as it would indicate shallowness in their popular support.

Maybe 2008 will be an interesting campaign season after all.

Revolutionary Technology in 1517

When considering the effect of the Internet on democracy, it is sometimes useful to look for historical analogies, instances in which a new technology had dramatic political impact. Sometimes these analogous situations can shed light on our current situation.

In his 2006 article, “Changing Media, Changing Politics,” University of California professor Samuel Popkin talks about the importance of distribution in stimulating intellectual and political change. He is not referring to the Internet though, but rather to the printing press.

Martin Luther
posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg in 1517. In our history classes we are taught that this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, but there is a key factor that we aren’t taught: distribution. It was not the ideas of the 95 Theses that made them revolutionary. According to Popkin, “priests had been nailing theses to church doors for centuries, listing their complaints with church doctrine or practice.” What made Luther’s theses so influential was not that they were nailed to the door but they were printed.

Gutenburg invented his moveable type press in 1436 and by 1500 there were 250 presses spread throughout Europe. Luther’s Theses arrived just at the right time. Between 1517 and 1520, 300,000 people bought pamphlet copies of the 95 Theses. Then Luther translated the Latin Bible into German, and that was printed too. Now people who had a reason to doubt religious doctrine because of their familiarity with the 95 Theses were able to read the Bible and see for themselves.

The Reformation led to the Enlightenment which produced the ideas of consitutional democracy that we live by today. It was the combination of revolutionary thought and revolutionary technology that causes the Protestestant Reformation and the revolutions that followed to occur.

What great ideas will be catapulted to worldwide recognition due to the massive communicative power of the Internet? The changes will almost certainly be greater than the changes wrought by the printing press. If 250 presses were able to change relgious doctrine in Europe, what will be the impact of the tens of millions of computers online around the world?

Unlike the printing press, which was a uni-directional means of spreading information, the Internet is multi-directional. Each Internet-connected computer has the distributive power of a printing press which can publish an unlimited amount of copies at almost no cost. In today’s world eveyone, either with a blog or personal web site can be a Martin Luther, able to disseminate ideas to a global audience.

The Internet has not yet caused the political transformation that the printing press wrought, but the Internet is young yet. The full effect of the printing press was not felt until 80 years after its invention. The printing press facilitated the Protestant Revolution which led to the Enlightenment and our current ideas of democracy. What transformations can we expect from the Internet?

(This is cross-posted at )

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