What Does It Mean To Be An Internet President?

FDR was our radio president, JFK was our television president and Barack Obama will be our Internet President.

Thumbnail image for Whitehouse.Gov.jpgQuietly at noon yesterday, as the world was fixated on the televised inauguration of Barack Obama, some obscure IT managers flipped a switch (metaphorically) and transferred Change.gov to Whitehouse.gov… While the inauguration spectacle was inspiring and the speech lived up to its promise, Whitehouse.gov is the herald of bigger changes. Government is entering the Internet age and Barack Obama is our first Internet president.

What does that mean?

Each medium has a unique signature (McCluhan would say it’s “message”); a set of characteristics that have a more profound influence on society than the content that flows through it. Television, for example is a capital-intensive broadcast medium requiring a passive viewer. These “pacifying” characteristics are one reason why Al Gore spent time during the Web 2.0 Summit to decry television’s corrosive effect on the democratic process.

Our democracy was constructed well before television (much less the Internet) in an era when the dominant technologies were the printing press and the horse-drawn carriage (Placement of district courts was based on a half-day’s horse and buggy ride to provide each citizen access to court services and the interregnum between presidential transitions took months in order to allow distant presidents to prepare and make the journey to Washington). These technologies invested themselves into every construct of our government.

So how do we re-imagine democracy in the age of networks, where the dominant metaphor is the hyperlink, and the printing press has yielded to the blog; where productivity (open source and crowdsourcing) and decision-making (idea exchanges, prediction markets, online voting etc.) has marked a shift in power from the core to the edge? We are at least a decade away from the answers. Here are a few general principles for democratic government to better serve us in the age of networks.

Listening beats Talking

In the network – listening is a prerequisite to learning. It is the critical precursor of everything we do – the beginning of joining conversations, building trust, learning and developing relationships. In a networked democracy, good government (at every level) will need to find avenues available to listen and respond to its citizens. We saw some of this evidenced at Change.gov (where prosecution of torture was the foremost concern on peoples’ mind) and in Tim Kaine’s video response to questions on the future of the Democratic party.

Open beats Closed
There is more untapped talent outside any organization than inside (government included). Open beats closed points towards two fundamentals: (1) getting beyond a paternal sense of government (what government does for me) and towards a participatory model of government embodied by Mybarackobama.com and subsequent incarnations, and (2) open, standardized data that enable citizens to remix and add their creative energies. Washington D.C. is doing a great job in this arena. The other side of the coin are operations like MySociety and Frontseat.org that are looking to work with data that is already available to improve civic life.

Leadership Counts More Than Ever
Although power has shifted from core to edge, vision and leadership counts more than ever before. Our generation’s notion of leadership will differ from the past (“Chainsaw” Al Dunlop anyone?). Consistent with the medium, leadership does not emanate from one highly leveraged point. It is a call to leadership at all levels of society. It is an open call to participation. In this regard, Obama has been a powerful model for a new generation of leaders ….

What do you think it means to be an Internet President? What do you think are other implications of the Internet and technology on Government and democracy?

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  • You may be interested to see our post on What Obama can do to promote openness.

  • Jim

    He hasn’t done anything yet and people continue to praise him. Amazing.

  • Sound advises for leaders of big corporations too.

  • SR

    I think the Obama government’s tech savviness just heralded a wave of other tech savvy goverments we will soon see spring across the globe. In the future, I don’t think it’s out of the realms of possibility to realize the actual meaning of democracy in a true web 2.0 fashion. Imagine a world where people, not just the heads of governements can decided the fate of their countries. Maybe some of the worst issues we face as a human race (war, struggle over land etc) can find solution through an internet plebiscite (online referendum). How cool would that be….

  • Bee

    It means you have to be careful. Don’t forget we have a representative democracy for reasons besides that a grassroots democracy was not feasible. If you attempt to run a country on the popular opinion, it’s a certain way into disaster. You need to have a way to delegate questions to people who have the time to study and understand the details, especially since the questions we are dealing with are getting ever more complex. Not to mention that you need to filter out high frequency noise.

    Obama should in particular spend some thought on the question how important information is for people to make decisions. Answer: tremendously. The idea that the internet is democratic is a pretty illusion. It is practically irrelevant if it contains an arbitrary amount of information. The real question is what part of this information is readily available and thus widely used? Answer: that what’s highly ranked by popular search engines. What is presently highly ranked: that what’s popular. Who has influence on the internet: those who have the money to pimp their websites and to run campaigns. Obama has played that game masterfully, so he knows the deal. But is that generally supportive for citizens in a democracy to get high quality information? Is that generally a good basis for people to make objective and informed decisions? Heck, just look at what’s happening to newspapers: two paragraph reports overloaded with advertisements.

    If you filter and sort information by popular opinion and let it be influence by those who have the money, you are eroding the basis of your democratic system.

    That’s what he should think about

    I have written some lines about this here, and investigating the question is part of this initiave, called the Lightcone Institute.

  • Jonathan – spot on. You may want to check out the interviewsI did with Jascha Franklin-Hodge of Blue State Digital. Also – ObamaCTO.org which reflects some of your opinion.
    Jim – you mean besides getting elected and changing the rules of how campaigns are won right?
    Ugo – I agree. In fact much of the wonderment we have about the Internet and Government has been learned by savvy business leaders already. The links in this post take you to various case studies on that point.
    Bee – Your comments are why I wanted to write about the necessity for leadership. Bottom Up governance will not work for reasons you point out. Oddly, a good analogy is markets – which need some form of leadership and regulation (in the form of guidance and boundaries) in order to serve a sustainable social good.

  • DC

    The partial exclusion of the powerful media outlets represents a revolution in direct, instant communication.

    Unlike previous centuries, one is not solely dependent on the powerful newspaper chains, their owners or their political editors. Information can be brought directly to the public. Real time responses and suggestions can be analyzed via Web 2.0 outlets.

    Also, the rise of a few powerful political blogs takes some of the monopolization from the traditional media which only had a small area for letters from the readers which were heavily filtered.

  • Bee


    I totally agree with you. I witness with amazement and a considerable amount of concern though that many people seem to believe grassroots democracy and populism is the answer to all our problems. Or alternatively, completely unregulated and free markets without any government intervention. Haven’t we learned anything from history? In either case a scientific approach to the question will be beneficial. Best,


  • DA

    “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

    I think Joshua has it wrong. There is a concerning cult of personality around President Obama and this post appears to be another example. The Internet and evolving technologies are powerful, valuable tools but at the end of the day they are only tools. Remember back before the Internet Bubble burst when thought leaders claimed there was a fundamental shift in the way economies worked – well we painfully got back to basics where building grounded profitable businesses was as important as it was prior to 1995.

    For the new President, he and his campaign did a very good job of using these tools to achieve his number one objective – getting elected and enhancing his brand. I congratulate him. The Internet and technology enabled the campaign at low cost and relative ease to hype heretofore pedestrian entities like the “Office of the President-Elect”. Kinda cool… sure – a game changer, I have my doubts. Anyone who has founded a startup in the last 10 years knows that you used the web to create a perception of your fledgling business that it did not deserve (and you worked you a** off to try to at least match). If anyone tells you different is smoking some crazy change you can believe in.

    As someone who considers themselves a part of the loyal opposition the crux of the Obama era will not be the employment of new tools and technologies but the age old burning questions: What is the proper role of government in our lives? Does government ensure our personal liberty or encroach upon it? Are our lives our own or lived for the sake of others and directed by an elite Mandarin class?

    Be careful to place too much emphasis on slick technologies. In a time where there are very real challenges in terms of the economy, the war, and a foolishly expensive emphasis on reversing “global warming”, to assume that the prosecution of torture is foremost on peoples’ mind in this country is ridiculous. It may be based on Change.gov blog posts but it’s just silly to apply that assumption to the entire country.

    If significant technological advances such as railroads, the telegraph, the telephone, the personal computer, the Web, etc. truly “changed the game”, then names like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin would be long forgotten and our founding documents would be quaint artifacts.

    I would amend Joshua’s last statement a bit to assert that Leadership counts as much as ever. We have elected a man with much talent but prior to his election very little in the way of true achievements and demonstrated leadership. I wish him luck.

  • Yuo might be interested in an interesting experiment with Open Innovation, initiated by officials of the Dutch Department of Economic Affairs on LinkedIn.

    It now has more than 900 participants, and is becoming an active discussion place between government officials and corporations:


    (all in Dutch)

  • Obama gets it! He is going to stay connected. He is a good communicator, whether it is giving a speech, or holding on to his Blackberry. I think he is the first engaged 21ST Century President. Let us see if he has enough sense not to spend too much time with Nancy and Barney!
    Thanks, Bob Lewis