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Posted by helen on Tue 10 Nov 2009 at 17:50

I've been thinking about online democracy a lot since my post the other day. Some of it's pretty exciting.

Mostly I'm just overwhelmed at how big the conversation is. I'm seeing new stuff everywhere I look. I think these next few months, the closing months of the failed New Labour project when no-one really wants Cameron to be Prime Minister, are going to be key for the conversation about democratic reform. I don't think there's time for anything to happen now but the energy is now, before the change happens, when everyone's excited by the possibilities. After the Tories get in I expect the fire will go out of the talk for a bit, but then we have the next four years to actually make something happen.

Anyway, so I've talked about Open Up, and linked a couple of the huge number of blog posts in the wake of the success of the Trafigura/Jan Moir temporary collectives. Seriously, these articles are everywhere. Here's another one. This isn't new, of course: people have been talking about reforming democracy online since Usenet, and I still think of MySociety as the pioneers in using online technologies to improve the quality of our democracy.

But recently ... I dunno, maybe I've just been getting more involved, but it feels like in the last twelve months it's really been gaining momentum. Our Kingdom has an ongoing conversation about democratic reform, and Guy Aitchison, the dude who runs it, is also heavily involved with the Power 2010 campaign.

Then there's 38 Degrees, and Louder, The Downing Street Project ... and that's just in the UK: worldwide it seems that new social innovation campaigns like The Girl Effect and the World Appreciative Enquiry Conference are springing up all over the place. Then there's thinktanks like IPPR which seem to overlap a surprising amount with the grassroots movements. It's inspiring and hopeful - so many people agreeing things need to change, and pouring so much ideas and energy and time into working towards that! - but also chaotic and dizzying. There's just so much of it! To what extent are all these different groups even aware of each other? Are they duplicating each other's work, are they all trying to reinvent the wheel? If none of this has any effect on the current system, is it so much shouting to the void? Are the messages reaching the people who need to hear them, or is it just a big echo chamber? With so many diverse groups, all with their own agenda, won't they just drown each other out? Do we need to get together and find points of commonality? Is that even possible?

Probably not, but today I've been thinking not about campaigns but about the tools they use. Yesterday I was utterly thrilled to read The Future of Politics is Mutual, which is by an awesome person I hadn't heard of before, called Hannah Nicklin. It's on the differences between the traditional press and online media, narrative vs information and the information economy, and the concept of wikipolitics.

What is Wikipolitics? It is a starting point. It takes the open-source ethic and applies it to government. I don't propose that we edit policy documents. I do believe that parliament should be opened up, demystified, and the power taken back. How do we do this? We've already started, look at projects such as Louder, 38 degrees, look at the Trafigura backlash, the Iran election, the G20 protests.

We now live in a world where we construct our own media consumption, where we pull together, build our own stories. Politics and the mainstream media are clinging on to old methods of distribution and delivery.

Whilst still acknowledging that at least 2/3 of the world does not have access to the internet (the UK figure is something like 30%, with a further 7-8% only having narrowband access - source) and those who do are likely to be from more affluent, developed backgrounds, we also need to be aware that instant publishing and access to our own media channels is incredibly empowering.

We also need to pull ourselves out of the luxury of political disempowerment. It is our responsibility to be involved in politics. If it is not one with which we wish to be involved, then we need to change it.

You should read the thread, because there's some really good stuff in there. I've been spamming the thread with comments and thinking lots. Like,

You don't have to be good looking or charming to speak powerfully online. It not only makes it easier for more people to engage on a more level playing field, in text, but it also would reduce the amount of verbal faff that goes on so much in BBC politics. All the "And I'm going to tell you why that is, that's because..." methods of answering questions, all the automatic verbal filler that gives the speaker more thinking time.


Think about the potential of online conversation. Previously, this sort of live conversation has been between a small handful of people, with a passive audience. Interaction takes place in the form of solicited questions from the audience, or phonecalls - that's not a real exchange of ideas.

Compare this with the comment threads on the big political blogs, where a single conversation can include 800 or more people. When have that many people ever, in the history of the human race, been able to simultaneously and actively engage in the same conversation?


First we need to fix the problems with candidate selection (what do you think of the ideas put forward in Open Up, such as open primaries?), then we need to facilitate direct public engagement between representatives and their constituents - a wiki format would be ideal. Representatives who didn't engage would face consequences - if they persisted in refusing it might have to lose them the seat. The wiki format would facilitate fact-checking, research, comparing differing reports and bringing in the opinion of experts. It would be chaotic, possibly a much bigger and messier project than Wikipedia, but I think wikipedia is a testament to what the public can achieve. Sort of like a counterpoint to the comments on Have Your Say.

You'd need language support, of course. Accessibility is an issue, but there could be free-to-use terminals in all public libraries, schools, universities, public centres - perhaps they would only connect to this system, to prevent people hogging the terminal to use Facebook.

MySociety have already pioneered online tech to facilitate engagement - I think something like this is the next step. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that you want something like Google Wave, with built-in live language support, live chat and playback features, rather than a traditional wiki. Wave's still in beta (although if you don't have an invite and want one, we have some spares), takes a lot of memory and a fast connection, and still has lots of bugs. But I think it has a lot of potential in this context.


There's a connection in my mind between the idea of Wikipolitics, the open source movement, the social consultancy method of groups like Tuttle ... The common threads are decentralisation and collaboration, and I think that MySociety-inspired consultation might be the seed that could take root in our present system. Tuttle is more a coalition of experts which filters down to a relevant group: the Wikipolitics idea is more hierarchical, if we're talking about improving dialogue and information exchange between the people and their representatives.

The open source movement's hierarchy is informal, based on expertise and experience. Getting our elected representatives to listen to those with expertise and experience of specialist issues would be a good start.


Rather than only being able to find out the politics going on behind a decision I disagree with if I turn up and badger a politician in person, I want that politician to have a mandate to explain their process publically, online, where it can be read and queried and challenged if we find it inadequate. We may not like the answer but if we can see their reasoning we may become more aware of the complexity of the issue. Or we may continue to disagree, having found the counter-arguments lacking. Either way, more information and transparency can only be good.

This sort of system would work best if it was completely universal: if you could access it anywhere, in any language, if kids were taught to log on at primary school and there was a kids section on the wiki where they could have their say and ask questions.

I don't think we've come close to hitting on the answer on it yet. I don't think a wikipolitics project as described would be likely to have wings: it would probably just turn into a community of hypergeeks bickering over details. I think Wave has the potential to be useful in the longterm but it's not ready yet, and neither is society.

There are a couple of "unconferences" on this stuff happening this week: Open 09 and £1.40. I can't get to either, but I'll be interested in hearing if the discussions went anywhere useful.

I don't know how to harness the energy of this conversation into action. I don't know how to get the disparate online groups to work together. But I think there's something in this, I really do.

I think the only way to fix our current broken democracy is to decentralise it to some extent. I think the internet not only offers strong models for governance in the form of open source ethics and the open source community, but also a unique opportunity for discourse, collaboration and development.

Anyway. This is me brainstorming. Feel free to join in.