Sunday, 11 September 2011

Distributed and anonymous: our say, our way on the Internet

Luke Giuliani

The distributed nature of the Internet is, I think, one of its greatest assets. It was definitely one of the main design considerations when ARPANET was first established. This non-centralised design has carried through with the way that services have treated user contribution, starting with modes like IRC and BBS, through to their modern equivalents like social networks and even more broadly any site that relies on user generated content. The option for anonymity in contribution has been omnipresent, if varying in degree. Of course whether you think this is good or bad depends highly on your point of view, in the same way that one's opinion of the whistleblower depends on whether you are the victim or the culprit.

With the growth of the internet as a primary communication channel, we have seen a more subtle result of this same distributed nature; a lack of a power of proscription. This lack of control has often led to an uptake of services in proportion to the risk averseness of the institution. Thus individuals and small businesses are quick to jump on the online bandwagon, but often government entities and decision makers - people with more to lose - are slower. Part of this is also a subtle transition in publishing power. Decision makers have historically had a "right-to-proof"; "I want to see that article before it goes to print" is a standard condition on working with the PR teams of politicians or big business. This control of information is in many ways antithetical to the publishing anarchy of the Internet.

In recent years, however, the invisible hand has pushed. Too many citizens consume too much of their information from (and thus base their decisions on) the Internet for decision makers to ignore, or even conditionally accept. Now PR teams have added "run your social media presence for you" to the list of services tendered. This has had an interesting result. We now have decision makers trying to control what is an inherently uncontrolled system.

We've seen this directly at OurSay, a project I am a part of, which connects decision makers with citizens. OurSay is a web based platform where citizens can ask questions of a decision maker and vote on other users questions that they think are important. Each user gets 7 votes, so they can use them all up in one go, or spread them around. After an OurSay question session closes, we go and get the answers to the top questions from the decision maker and put it up on the site. The interesting bit here is that without a doubt, everybody we talk to about answering questions voted for on OurSay asks: "But what happens if the top question is against my views?".

The idealist in me answers: answer it anyway! You don't get to be in a position of power without having to answer difficult questions sometimes. If the question asks "In what ways are you similar to a chimp?", tell them you share 96% of the same DNA. How about a question asking a decision-maker to back up policy with hard commitment? What about curlier ones, like asking the CEO of Telstra his thoughts on the environmental consequences of printing millions of copies of the Yellow Pages each year? (go here for the answer to that one.) We at OurSay have worked with all parts of the political or issue spectrum to try and get some really substantial questions asked of the people up the top. OurSay essentially provides a platform where the contribution of individuals is metered through the mechanism of voting. It is a compromise between the control desired by decision makes and the everyone-can-say-whatever-they-want model of the Internet.

OurSay provides one model of how relationships between decision makers and citizens might evolve in the future. People will expect and demand greater interaction with their policymakers. Additionally, the Internet has enabled the provision and consumption of information at phenomenal levels. (I must have opened up a browser at least 20 times just in the writing of this post.) I hope that this increased demand for interaction and increased levels of information accessibility will be symbiotically beneficial, resulting in leaders that are responsive to citizens and citizens who are informed and proactive about the issues they care about.

Let's face it, the Internet is a scary place. Voice your opinion and at some point you are likely to be misconstrued. At worst, you'll probably be ridiculed for what you say with varying levels of constructiveness. How much more scary if you are somebody with something to lose. The trick will be how to find the right balance of accountability, accessibility, honesty, privacy and transparency.

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