Obama's Online Town Hall Was A Failure Of CrowdsourcingObama's Online Town Hall Was A Failure Of Crowdsourcing
President Obama's recent <a href="http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/03/26/obama.online/">online town hall</a> meeting was a masterful example of using social media to build support for himself and his policies. But that's only part of what he should be doing with social media. He also needs to use the technology to really let regular citizens drive government, and that just didn't happen at that meeting. Instead, citizens tried to take the wheel -- and the White House grabbed it back.
April 8, 2009
President Obama's recent online town hall meeting was a masterful example of using social media to build support for himself and his policies. But that's only part of what he should be doing with social media. He also needs to use the technology to really let regular citizens drive government, and that just didn't happen at that meeting. Instead, citizens tried to take the wheel -- and the White House grabbed it back.Other than as a display of the power of rhetoric, the town hall meeting was mostly forgettable, as the president gave polished answers to questions on subjects including the economy, education, and health care.
Even though the White House selected questions by asking citizens to vote on them in advance, the questions he answered were pretty much the same ones you'd expect to see in any forum, Web 2.0 or otherwise.
The White House discarded one line of questioning that got a lot of support from citizens: Legalizing marijuana. That ended up being the subject of quite a few jokes -- I particularly enjoyed the gags on NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me," and I was sorry that the Daily Show was on vacation that week.
How'd all that dope talk get on the online town hall platform? Well, anybody who's ever tried to run an online poll knows that they're highly susceptible to being hijacked by special interest groups, whether it's Mac zealots getting all their friends to come out and vote in a Mac vs. Windows poll, or Howard Stern fans placing prank calls for "Ba Ba Booey."
The White House cast aside marijuana questions as just that kind of hijacking.
But the White House was wrong, argues Jeff P. Howe on Wired's' Crowdsourcing blog.
Drug legalization is a crazy idea -- but crowdsourcing platforms like "Open for Questions," the one the White House used, are designed to produce crazy ideas. Companies -- and governments -- need to listen to crazy ideas every once in a while.
Open for Questions fits squarely within a genre of crowdsourcing I call "idea jams." These are often called suggestion boxes on steroids, or some such silly thing. But in reality they constitute their own evolutionary branch of brainstorming. Users don't just submit ideas, but also vote and (usually) comment on them as well.
Idea jams are a big hit with the private sector. Companies like Starbucks, Dell, IBM and even General Mills have all adopted them, for the excellent reason that they're a cost-effective method for product innovation, and inspire good will with your customers to boot. The best-publicized incarnation involves Dell's "IdeaStorm," which the computer maker used to tap its most loyal (or at any rate, most vocal) customers. They've now integrated some 280 suggestions into their product line. Tellingly, Dell used the same Salesforce.com platform that the Obama transition team used to produce the quickly - and justly - discarded Citizens' Briefing Book.
So if the idea jam format works for companies, why isn't it working for our President? A few reasons:
First, the White House isn't matching the right tool to the right job. "The whole point of [such exercises] is not to find the question that the whole group wants to ask and that is predictable - but to enable cognitive outliers to ask the unpredictable question - to promote ways of thinking about problems (and solutions) that are uncommon," writes Kim Patrick Kobza, CEO of Neighborhood America, which develops social software for business and government.
In other words, idea jams are built to allow people to discover the fringe question (or idea, or solution), then tweak it, discuss it and bring the community's attention to it. When Dell launched Idea Storm, it was "hijacked" by Linux die-hards which suggested (nay, insisted) that Dell release a Linux computer. These folks were "trolls" to the same extent the drug legalization lobby swamping White House servers are, and Dell struggled with how to deal with them.
In other words: Getting hijacked by special interest groups isn't a bug of idea jams. It's a feature.
Dell handled in the hijacking problem in the short term by merging all the Linux comments into one thread, so that other ideas could be heard. In the long term, they gave the Linux supporters what they wanted, and came out with three computer models pre-installed with Linux.
The War on Drugs has been going on for decades now, it's washed inner cities in blood and created criminal organizations that challenge governments in Latin America and around the world. Drug abuse is a terrible problem -- but is the War on Drugs the answer? We're spending billions of dollars arming drug police and putting drug users in prison, we've been doing it for decades, and it doesn't seem to be working. Does that mean we need to legalize drugs? I'm not saying that -- but it's a national discussion we need to have. The interactive town hall gave President Obama an opportunity to start that discussion, and he dismissed the opportunity with a charming grin, chuckle, and quip.
Candidate Obama was rightly praised for using social media to organize supporters and collect donations, and President Obama uses it as a platform to speak out on issues. But we're not seeing evidence that citizens using social media are changing the outcomes of decisions. Instead, the president's use of social media looks like one of those corporate all-hands planning meetings where the employees are told that everyone will be listened to and all ideas are on the table -- and the decision at the end is pretty much exactly the same as what the bosses figured out before the meeting started.
P.S. My company's CEO Tony Uphoff brought this story to my attention on our company's internal social media platform, which we call a "wiki" -- our own, internal form of crowdsourcing.
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