Top positive review
Interesting, thoughtful but some questionable assumptions
on 30 December 2015
Charles Leadbeater book, is – as you would expect from him – an interesting and thoughtful study. It clearly and persuasively lays out how “an unparalleled wave of online creativity” is upon us, with collaborative efforts such as Wikipedia providing information for free and in a way that would have been previously unthinkable.
Underlying it though is an assumption which features on the book’s cover: “The generation growing up with the web will not be content to remain spectators. They want to be players.” The extent to which this is true matters in particular for those seeking to use the internet for politics, for in the political arena online collaborative generation of content is relatively rare. Is this because those in politics just don’t get user-generated content, Web 2.0 and the whole modern way of doing things? Or is it because they understand the limitations of such approaches – and that only very few people want to stop being a spectator?
To Leadbeater’s credit, he himself provides evidence which undermines the breathless excitement of the book cover. For example, as of January 2006 less than 50,000 people worldwide had made even just five or more edits to Wikipedia. That is a tiny proportion of Wikipedia’s visitors, with the vast majority happy to remain as spectators, consuming the work of others. It’s a large enough number to provide an impressive collection of information – but that is far from saying we’re all moving away from being spectators.
This asymmetry appears again and again in his book. Another example: he received around 200 emails in response to his online drafts during the writing of the book. That’s a large enough number to add significantly to the quality of the final version, but is still a tiny number of the total readers a best selling author like himself can get to. Moreover, in this and other cases, it is far from clear that we could all cope with a scaling up of collaboration on a scale sufficient to make the number of collaborators more than a tiny proportion of the audience. 200 emails would be great, 2,000 challenging and 200,000 a nightmare.
What is the lesson from this for politics? It is that an openness to user-generated content, collaboration and making producing content more like a conversation is really about making what you produce better; it isn’t about involving the public on a significant scale in a paradigm-shifting manner.
Think back to Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign for example. It certainly featured massive successful use of the internet, but that was in aid of getting out his chosen message, his chosen policies and to his chosen strategy. They may have been better informed and selected due to dialogue and feedback, but policies, messages and strategy were not written collaboratively, wiki-style.
Political use of such approaches also has another hurdle: politics has a strong adversarial streak. Voting, after all, is about choosing who to vote for – and who not to vote for. That means political online collaboration and the like is in practice far more vulnerable to online vandalism, negative comments, votes to bury content and so on than most other areas of discussion. There are tools which make handling this problem easier, but the existence of this underlying dynamic is one reason why politics is, to a degree, different.
Involving the public more in politics would certainly be a good thing; it’s just the Web 2.0 world of collaborative and user-generated content isn’t a primary means to do so. Wikipedia gives huge power over the public’s consumption of information to 50,000 people. That may be better than it being only in the hands of a small number of publishers, but it is still a fundamentally elitist structure.
A bigger elite people can opt to join is a nicer, cuddlier one, but still an elite. Part of the reason for that is that, as Leadbetter points out, “communities that share and develop ideas usually start around someone who donates their knowledge.” In other words, the usually start around someone who has something that others do not – and that core role and power is not a position anyone has been elected to. Hence my use of the word ‘elite’.
We see this with open source software projects, where the most successful almost always have a small elite core of people making key decisions and driving the project forward. Linux is many good things, but it is not a democratically created or formed piece of software. Linus Torvalds really has the role of benevolent dictator. And that doesn’t make him or the Linux process a great role-model for how our politics should operate.