The Rise of Open-Source Politics | The Nation


The Rise of Open-Source Politics

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Micah L. Sifry blogs about the issues in this article at www.personaldemocracy.com.

The Emerging Internet Majority

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Micah L. Sifry
Micah L. Sifry, a former Nation associate editor, is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, editor of its...

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Ganz seems to think my book blames technology alone for the Internet’s failure to democratize politics. That’s far from the case.

For a healthy democracy, transparency is the best medicine.

To the visionary technologists building the new civic software, we are living in nothing short of a paradigm shift. Scott Heiferman, the scrawny, youthful CEO of Meetup.com, enjoys citing Alexis de Tocqueville along with Robert Putnam, and argues, "In the same way that TV took politics away from the grassroots, the Internet will give it back." He predicts a return to the 1800s/early-1900s era of joiners and organizers, when a double-digit level of civic participation in community affairs was common. Steven Johnson, the author of Emergence, recently wrote:

Using open-source coding as a model, it's not a stretch to believe the same process could make politics more representative and fair. Imagine, for example, how a grassroots network could take over some of the duties normally performed by high-priced consultants who try to shape a campaign message that's appealing. If the people receiving the message create it, chances are it's much more likely to stir up passions.

Joi Ito, a Japanese venture capitalist and social entrepreneur, predicts that the web will become more self-organizing and that a new form of "emergent democracy" will evolve that will be more supple and transparent than traditional forms of representative democracy.

There's no question that public discourse is being radically changed. As Dan Gillmor, a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, writes in his terrific new book, We the Media, "If someone knows something in one place, everyone who cares about that something will know it soon enough." But it's also possible that new Internet-based tools will merely give already advantaged groups greater voice, reinforcing existing inequalities. "I think there are still a lot of Americans who think that no one is listening to them," says Theda Skocpol. She argues that web-enabled politicking may just be "really well suited to the liberal side of the spectrum, where you have a lot of college-educated people who are not connecting to politics through church networks or their workplaces or professional associations, where open partisanship is frowned upon, and where the Democratic Party has fallen into dealing with people as disaggregated individuals, followers or clients, rather than participants."

Indeed, a Bentley College survey of attendees at Meetups for the Democratic presidential candidates and party found they were mostly white middle- and upper-income professionals. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project's most recent survey, Hispanics have closed the gap with whites, with two-thirds of both groups going online, but Internet usage among blacks lags by about 18 percent. Age is the other obvious predictor of online behavior, with just under one-quarter of people over 65 venturing online. Yet another factor also affects Internet participation: time. "Who is it that spends time online?" asks Mathew Gross. "It's people at home or at desk jobs where they can surf the web. You don't have that kind of time or freedom if you're a dental hygienist or migrant worker," he notes.

Skocpol argues that the Internet is not changing the class structure of mobilization, because it is all driven by "intentional politics." You have to know in advance that you're looking for political information or to join a conversation or make a donation before you search on the web, she says. In the past, when federated, mass-membership organizations enlivened civic life, "People didn't have to know in advance that they wanted to be involved," she notes. She has a point: While the web may make it easier for a compelling message to circulate through existing social networks, it doesn't alter our tendency to cluster by social group. At the same time, people who rely on the net for political information are actually more likely than non-net users to seek out views different from their own, according to a new Pew Internet study.

These are likely to be momentary bumps in a much larger wave. That's because the next generation is growing up online, rather than adapting to it in their mid-adult years. More than 2 million children aged 6-17 have their own website, according to a December 2003 survey by Grunwald Associates. Twenty-nine percent of kids in grades K-3 have their own e-mail address. Social networking sites like Friendster and Flickr (a photo-sharing site) are drawing millions of participants and fostering new kinds of social conversations, some of which are already political.

Josh Koenig, one of the twenty-somethings who cut their teeth at the Dean campaign and a co-founder of Music for America, says, "We're only seeing the first drips of what is going to be a downpour." When he told me that in most high schools in America, students are using the web to rank their teachers, I thought that was a bit of hyperbole. But then I discovered RateMyTeachers.com, where more than 6 million ratings have been posted by students on more than 900,000 teachers at more than 40,000 American and Canadian middle and high schools. That's triple the number from one year ago, covering about 85 percent of all the schools in both countries.

Just imagine when they take that habit into their adult lives, and start rating other authority figures, like politicians and bosses. The future is in their hands, though the rest of us will be taken along for the ride.

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