Saturday, January 30, 2010

In which netroots democracy is maligned by a schmuck

Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation talking to Guy Raz on All Things Considered:

Mr. JOHNSON: ...[I]t's important to remember that just because, you know, an organization or a group or a community is the most well-organized doesn't mean they're the most popular. So when you see, for instance, marijuana questions being the top question, it doesn't mean that they're the most popular amongst all of America. What it means is this is the most organized community...

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...that's capable of getting their, you know, plus-one-ing their question.

RAZ: And when you plus-one-ing, that means you're voting for it.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, you're up-voting it. What's really interesting is you can watch people organize to rig these questions, which isn't something that you can do, you know, with, say, lobbyists.

RAZ: And how can you see that?

Mr. JOHNSON: So you can go on like, right, and plug in CitizenTube, space, marijuana and you get a list of all of the mailing lists that Google indexes out there. And the discussions of people saying, hey, go plus one this question. And you can, in a really transparent way, watch people organize and see what's going on.

RAZ: Does this process actually distort the power of a small number of people, in a sense, kind of undermine the whole point of democratizing this whole thing?

First of all, the answer is yes, "YouTube democracy" does distort the power of a relatively small number of people. In particular, it distorts the power of people with webcams Internet connections fast enough to upload videos YouTube -- mostly class-privileged folks. It also distorts the power of people who are, in general, more likely to be chosen as spokespeople for that crowd -- mostly white, class-privileged cisgendered men.

But that's not what Guy Raz was going for. It was not the problem of access that Guy Raz was worried about -- it was the problem of get-out-the-vote efforts. The problem with YouTube democracy is that sometimes, people try to encourage other people to vote, especially if they believe those people will vote in a particular way.

In any democracy, it's problematic when some people are more likely to vote than others. And it's also somewhat problematic when get-out-the-vote efforts target particular populations and ignore others. But this is by no means a problem that's unique to Internet democracy. Furthermore, the analogy we should be drawing isn't to lobbying, it's to (a) voter registration drives and/or (b) all forms of campaigning.

If you want to object to the fact that some people are much more likely to vote than others, and the people who vote tend to be whiter and richer than the people who don't, that's fine. I object to that too. But the solution should not be for the people who do vote to stay home -- it should be to have get-out-the-vote efforts targeting people who are currently underrepresented. And if you're going to talk about these problems as "undermin[ing] the whole point of democratizing this thing" when it's happening online, shouldn't we consider our formal democracy at least as undermined?

It's also worthwhile to talk about the specifics -- they were complaining about the fact that a bunch of potheads voted up a question about pot legalization, and got Obama to talk about it. Really? This is the one time when I've heard Obama talk about legalization -- and he treated it as a joke. I didn't hear it talked about seriously by his opponents during the campaign, either. All of this is despite the fact that 44% of Americans support legalization, and support is at 78% among liberals -- who are theoretically Obama's base. Given these levels of support, and the paucity of serious politicians who talk about legalization, we're complaining about these people being over-represented?

(Granted, the question Obama chose to answer talked about legalization of pot as though it would fix the economy. While I agree that it couldn't hurt, thinking of this as a serious economic policy makes me wonder if some stoner mixed up "million" and "billion.")

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