It was big news recently that former Twitter executive Jason Goldman is joining the White House to head up a new office of Digital Strategy.
In his post, Jason asked for advice, posted anywhere, using the hashtag #socialcivics. I decided to do a writeup, as he asked, to share my ideas and to spark further conversation.
Briefly, Jason’s mission, on behalf of the White House, is to create new tools and processes for civic engagement, so that all of us are working more effectively together to build a nation that works for everyone, not just for the few with privileged access.
One of the key ideas I have to offer is something that years ago, in the context of open source software, I called “the architecture of participation.” I wrote:
[Open source software projects] that have built large development communities have done so because they have a modular architecture that allows easy participation by independent or loosely coordinated developers … The Web, however, took the idea of participation to a new level because it opened that participation not just to software developers, but to all users of the system.
Modularity depends on standards — formal or informal expectations about behavior and interfaces — and interoperability. To take an example that is not from software, consider that our most competitive, participatory industries all feature devices made from standardized parts. Whether you’re talking automobiles or personal computers or cell phones, a rich ecosystem of suppliers is possible only because we agreed that the threads on bolts and nuts should be a certain size, that electronic parts should be interchangeable, and that complex, custom assemblies should be kept to a minimum. Even large systems depend on small modular parts, but the fewer modular parts a system has, the more expensive it is, and generally, it can be modified and improved by far fewer people.In practice, modularity also means that there is an optimal size for the unit of participation. Returning to the Internet, consider Wikipedia. For all its flaws, Wikipedia works because there is a standard unit of participation — the article — with a standard format, and with clearly defined constraints on its scope. Attempts to harness wikis to write longer form works have routinely failed, but they shine when people who care about a single topic can focus in on that one topic and hammer out an agreement about what matters about that topic.
Even for information created by a single individual that is meant to be consumed, not engaged with, the Internet teaches us that for maximum reach, the unit of content should be small. Consider YouTube. It’s hard and expensive to make a two-hour feature film that millions of people will watch, so only a few people can do it — but it’s easy to create a clip of a minute or two, so tens of millions of people do it. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram also teach us that small bits of very specific content are much easier to engage with. Rather than a small number of big bets, online media depends on millions of small bets, which are curated after the fact by consumers, so that the most important or most engaging spread virally.
Government tends to communicate with long speeches, detailed policy documents, and enormous bodies of law and regulations.
The larger the unit of participation, the harder it is for people to take part. That’s why, for example, the growth in the size of modern legislation is so antithetical to democracy. When a bill is tens of pages long (consider, for example, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which established the U.S. interstate highway system, at 29 pages) anyone can read and understand it. When it is 906 pages long (like the Affordable Care Act), few people — including the legislators who vote on it — are likely to fully grasp it, and it ends up being shaped by a small cadre of very knowledgeable insiders and lobbyists who have strong economic interests in the outcome.
This is a long preamble to my advice to Jason:
As you rethink civic participation, think about standardized parts and the unit size for participation.
There are many long-term implications to this notion that are well outside the scope of Jason’s job. So, perhaps we should limit the scope of advice to this: we must adapt the architecture of communications from the White House to the standards of the Internet rather than to the standards of the print and television era. Even when the President gives a brilliant speech, like the one he gave in Selma, few channels will broadcast the entire 32 minutes, and few people will take the time to watch or listen. Yet, there is no reason that the short soundbites that were broadcast on radio or television should be chosen by a small number of mainstream media sites. When the speech is put online, it should be accompanied by a time-coded, searchable transcript, which would make it easier for the public to link to, comment on, and share the portions that they really care about. Tools make all the difference. The text of the speech is online at whitehouse.gov, and so is the video, but they are not coordinated in such a way as to maximize access.
TED, whose talks have collectively been viewed billions of times, follows both these practices. All talks are of a standard size. All are accompanied by time-coded transcripts, showing the point in the video corresponding to the beginning of each paragraph in the talk. This not only helps search engines to surface the relevant content, it allows people to find where in a long video the content is that they want to link to. Not only that, TED provides translations, which are crowdsourced. Given that not every American speaks English as their primary language, and that our goal should be to share our values and our ideas around the world, crowdsourced translation tools would be a feature also well worth adopting.
YouTube provides another feature that should be supported in all White House video: the ability to “deep link” to any point in the video with a time code appended to the end of the URL. For example, “#t=2m30s” at the end of a YouTube URL means to start playing the video at the 2 minute, 30 second mark.
There’s another key observation that I hope Jason takes a close look at: social media is not just about getting attention. It’s a more powerful tool for giving attention. What if the @whitehouse Twitter feed didn’t just consist of announcements by the President, but instead, his responses to what he’s reading and seeing — just like everyone else on the social Web? What if people who made interesting points got an @-message from the President?
Not only does this kind of engagement use the power of the Presidential “bully pulpit” to recognize people and communities that have something to say, it can reshape the dialogue by bringing new communities together.
As I wrote in my piece, It’s Not About You: The Truth About Social Media Marketing:
The right way to energize social media isn’t to try to find people to tout your products. It’s to find people who care about the same things you do, and to tell a story that amplifies their voice because it helps people who haven’t yet heard the word also come to know and care. In fact, the products you create should be by and for that community.
Real engagement with the people who care about the issues that the administration is trying to advance is far more effective than broadcasting administration messages and talking points, and hoping they get repeated.
It is important to find and reach out to communities that already exist, especially latent communities of people who share values and goals but don’t normally engage with each other.
The White House has made some great steps in this direction. For example, after the 2015 State of the Union speech, the President did a YouTube interview with Bethany Mota, GloZell Green, and Hank Green, all of whom have large and diverse audiences, many of whose members would not normally pay much attention to the White House. It was similarly refreshing to see the amazing Humans of New York visit with the President.
Finally, the administration needs to trust “the wisdom of crowds.” Input from the Internet Public can be eye-opening, especially when it contradicts the conventional thinking in Washington. During the President’s first term, he held online town halls and YouTube conversations that were seen as something of an embarrassment because they were dominated by questions about marijuana legalization. Subsequent events have proven that it was the administration, not the participants in these online forums, who were out of step with the common sense of the American public.
Even when the Internet Public yanks the President’s chain, there is an enormous opportunity for fresh kinds of engagement. When people used the We The People petition system to request an official response on whether we ought to build a Star-Wars style “death star,” the administration won enormous points by responding with style and humor rather than ignoring the request.
The challenges that Jason will be tackling are as much cultural as they are technical. But as Marshall McLuhan once wisely noted, “We shape our tools, and then they shape us.” The communication tools and practices that the White House adopts can have an enormous impact on both the style and the substance with which the Administration — and all future Administrations — engage with the American public and the larger world.