07 July 2011

The #AskObama experiment: democracy or distraction?

I read a very interesting piece from Umair Haque at the Harvard Business Review Blog about the recent "Twitter Town Hall" held at the White House.   Equal parts political cynicism and technological utopianism, Haque asserts the one-time nature of the event demonstrates the Administration isn't truly interested in the truly participatory democracy that social media technology can help create.  From the piece:
The promise of social technologies is to fundamentally reimagine and reboot yesterday's crumbling institutions (and disempower the bumbling beancounters who run them). In political terms? They should be used — right now, right here, right this very second — to build a deeper democracy, one where via deliberation, citizens have a bottom-up impact on policy-making, which as it stands today is totally disconnected from and unresponsive to the general populace and unable to do much of anything about anything. They should be used to help ignite an authentic prosperity, by redrawing the boundaries of political freedom for the underprivileged and the powerless — and to blow apart a polity that protects and props up the privileged and the powerful.
Emphasis his.  Sadly, I agree with much of Haque's cynicism though I think it's nothing new.  For me the worst moment was two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, when President Bush was getting hammered with criticism over his inadequate response.  That political brain trust decided to have the President give a speech in Jackson Square in New Orleans - and for some reason to do it at night.  Of course, power had not been restored to that area yet, so the federal government flew in with an arsenal of lights and generators to create an amazing visual backdrop so the President could promise we would "rebuild" but not offer anything in terms of a strategy.  Then the speech ended, and the political advance team made a swift exit - and took the lights and generators with them.

I suspect many people think the country is increasingly frustrated by a real and perceived growing separation between the government and the governed, that the government listens only to the privileged few, and the rest of us are paid lip service at best.  I think people also feel let down by the fourth estate - perhaps the one valuable tidbit from this White House event was the observation that "regular folks" on Twitter seem to have different priorities than the White House Press Corps.

I was struck by one other quote from the piece, where Haque adds a geopolitical element to this disconnect:
And what you're really telling me is this: in some parts of the world, social tools can fuel the revolutions that topple dictators. Here, in the nation that invented them? They're used for marketing stunts.
This is where I disagree somewhat with Haque. He's right that the beltway crowd still largely views social media as a gimmick to exploit - we focus too much on the word "Twitter" and not enough on the words "Town Hall." But as important as they clearly are, I don't think social tools "fuel revolutions." People do. Ideas do.

In August 2009 I interviewed Hamid Tehrani, Iran editor for Global Voices Online. We spoke just after the controversial presidential elections in Iran - an event that some say led to the great "Arab Spring" of 2011. Hamid's coverage - and his courage in contradicting and defying state-run media there - was amazing. Here's what I wrote then, and it's still valid today:
So much of the "social media coverage" of these protests has been about the tools, and they're no doubt important. But I still think this story is still about the people, the messages, the stories, and what's at stake. Hamid made some excellent points about how social classes have come together in protests, something you wouldn't expect to see in Iran. And for all the talk about Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, I loved his point about history. In 1978 the Ayahtolla distributed audio cassettes to spread his message and people climbed to their rooftops to yell "God is great" in protest. Today, they're using social media tools, but the protesters are still going to the rooftops and they're still chanting "God is great."
Of course, the issue that Haque and so many communicators in Washington and beyond are dancing around with this Twitter event is commonly referred to as "media convergence." It's a term coined by marketing and PR gurus to encompass the "3C's" - computing, content, and communication - and the discussion typically focuses on how you can read a newspaper on your mobile phone now or we don't do classified ads the same way anymore. To me, however, the "C's" (some people add a fourth C, consumers) are ancillary to the conversation. Media convergence is, and always has been, a story about power.

I'll write about this more in the future.

1 comment:

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