Editor’s note: Below is an open letter to our President from guest author Edo Segal, a concerned web geek who cares about the future of our democracy. It is followed by a proposal and a new website for anyone who thinks they know what #obamashould do (cynics please skip post).
On the night of your acceptance speech, just before you walked on stage, “you” sent out an email saying “i will be in touch soon”—but you disappeared and all we were left with was the strange feeling you get when your older brother ditches you for his cooler friends. Does it take you winning a Nobel prize to get another direct letter from you?
Where’s the attention? The yes-we-can attitude, making us feel we can be good again? It seems that since you made it to the Oval Office you have been too busy at work, and our relationship has really suffered.
I recall that as the election results where announced, there was an epiphany that hit the pundits and us web folks at the same time. “He’s going to govern this way” we all thought. What we meant was that you will continue the evolution of direct democracy beyond using the Internet for fundraising, heralding a new age of direct access to the citizenry. A new age of democracy where the President has your email and can talk to you directly. An age without intermediaries and pollsters—just us and that cool guy who’s running the country.
Regardless of our political views, almost everyone in this country was in awe of how you came to be in office and changed how elections are won forever. But for the readers of Techcrunch, the people who grease the wheels of our progress online, it feels like after the hangovers were over and you moved on to set up your transitional government, from that day, what was a highly effective and motivating direct relationship with your supporters, an emotional relationship that was predicated on a real connection evaporated. And what we were left with was the most effective spam bot in the world (Gmail doesn’t block it) . This is wrong in so many ways, let me count just a few:
1. Stop asking me for money: Why are you still asking me for money? I think I am not alone in being confused with the notion that you are still asking me for money after you were elected President (I know why you need it intellectually but not emotionally). I mean at this point, I feel like you should be paying me back with change and not billing me every week. I pay a big bill every April that should just about cover it.
Using the “Network” purely as a means to raise money without the additional layers of engagement and relationship is offensive. We are the network. By just using email as a system to raise money you loose the soul of the connection you established with millions of people.
2. Your singular focus is distracting: While there has been much discussion about the administrations’ notion of taking on multiple fronts at the same time, the online channel recently has been fully saturated with a singular purpose of supporting the very important policy goal of universal healthcare. But in doing so, you have played into the hands of your opponents. The grind on Capitol Hill and the levels of complexity that are involved in making this happen, and the time it takes are not a recipe for engagement—they are a recipe for disaster. You are losing your audience and failing us on a major promise of direct democracy.
When I explained my support for you at the very early stages of your campaign to bewildered people who didn’t see how it could be possible for you to win the Presidency, I articulated that regardless of the specific nuance of your policies, the fact you have the power to motivate people in this way is priceless. You demonstrated that you can build on top of the best practices of prior online campaigns (Dean). Delegation to really smart people culminated in the most effective campaign financing system in the history of democracy. But if you don’t keep watering the soil from which your support stems, that direct relationship, you will not be able to make the historic policy changes you seek. Your base is eroding as you focus all of your communication channels on a VERY heavy piece of legislation. Don’t spam us, engage us.
3. The promise: From the perspective of the history of media, the level of engagement you can generate through the Internet has typically been reserved for occasions of war and violence, for times of strife and conflict. Like the days of WWII when people huddled around their radios to hear the comforting voice of their leaders. Imagine applying the same level of engagement that won’t just fuel death destruction and line the pockets of the military industrial complex, but rather will power true change, growth and improve the quality of life for all people. This is within your grasp if you follow through and use the medium appropriately.
Mr. President, beyond the content of your ideas, now is the time to extend the way you govern as we all heard you promise. Make us care again. Online engagement is the key to fostering the support you need to accomplish your policy goals. Engagement is the key to maintaining your base as you mount these vast campaigns. Getting the government to set up a network of Web 1.0 sites is a start, but we need much more. If you continue to spam us and recycle old speeches off a teleprompter into email (like you did with the Nobel eMail) you will lose your base, but if you step up to the challenge and continue to take risks and push the envelope in structural ways that only you can, your greatest legacy could be more than enacting historic legislation or winning a premature prize. It could be the very way our democratic process works and how we view government.
Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
That is my letter to Obama, but it is not enough. The notion that we will evolve the very essence of democracy beyond the already achieved goal of changing campaign financing and moving power away from private interests is profound. I truly believe it may end up being the greatest piece of innovation we are collectively offering the world in the coming decades. But to make additional progress, you and I need to step up. If each of us contribute a bit of creative energy we can accelerate this evolution by a generation
In the past, the main skills that effected political outcomes in the communications realm were polling, copy writing, speech writing, and directing and producing for radio and television. But today and in the future, the most potent creative skill-set is that of creating online connections. Yes, I’m talking about you. Our professional careers depend on our ability to create platforms that engage millions of people and constantly grow that level engagement. The readership of this blog constitutes the highest concentration of such competency on the planet. We spend our lives creating platforms that aim to engage millions of people.
We get it, it’s tough for government to take risks and thus political innovation moves at a glacial pace. Maybe we can give the pols a hand, help speed things up a bit.
Rather than just rely on comments and the ill will of the trolls, I took a little initiative and with the help of the good people at iGeneration who volunteered their time to build Obamashould.org, a site for the community to contribute ideas to the President. Please spend a few minutes there and voice your opinions in a constructive way. Or just tweet your ideas with the hashtag #obamashould. The site will track retweets, and the ideas gathering more support will float to the top automatically. Its like an http://www.ideastorm.com/ meets tweetmeme.com and uservoice for our President. BTW, Mr. President, if you want the source code, it’s yours. If you are a developer and want to contribute to the project please join us. We will take the best ideas that surface to the top from there and get them built by the community. We may even launch some of them here on Techcrunch in a few months.
Let me throw out some #obamashould’s to start the ball rolling. Click the YES re-tweet button if you support it!
Idea 1: What you did to get us, you need to do to keep us. Keep a weekly Youtube post that gets emailed to the base. It feels like you are becoming hostage to the status quo of what presidential communications has always been. For both the Y Generation and many of us older folks, the notion of what constitutes presidential behavior is changing rapidly with your actions serving as the main catalyst. communications is when in fact you are the one that is supposed to re-invent it. It’s not a presidential address in the conventional sense of the word. Give us genuine direct talk over words tested with pollsters any day. A direct candid discussion about a given topic once a week that is not read off a teleprompter is priceless for the continual sense of a direct relationship. Just flick open your laptop in the oval office or in your study at night and talk to us. Have a small panel of trusted advisers review it, and if no serious red flags are raised post it and email it to us. The value of genuine conversation from a man with your insight will way overshadow the shortcomings offered in the prose. You will probably say things you will regret, but the damage done will be dwarfed by having a continued sense of renewed personal relationships with your citizens. If you do this, they will be there when you need them. Retweet to vote up or Comment Here
Idea 2: Engage the people via email and ask them for their opinions, not just their money. Have a weekly poll question that is linked to social media (twitter, facebook), creating a viral engagement engine. In addition to the immediate policy objectives, you need to understand that such engagement is not only a means to an end, but an end in itself. Retweet to vote up or Comment Here
Idea 3: Give $500 of your money to charitywater.com (Video) and send out an invite from their system to everyone on your mailing list to do the same. Tweet it, put it on facebook. Show people how they can use the web to effect positive change in the world and do good again. Why not? That single email will effect millions of lives around the globe. Giving changes people, help them give and start that chain reaction of good will. Use your power to promote things that have to do with generosity of spirit, not just hard core policy. This is a way to lead through example and not just talk in the abstract about the need for volunteerism. Your effect on the world cannot be reduced to a series of policy wins and losses. Different from prior Presidents making public their charity contributions, doing this via a digital medium is like clicking a button that activates a viral system and magnifies your contribution a million-fold over the web. Retweet to vote up or Comment Here
What do you think #obamashould do?
Go to www.obamashould.org and please contribute ideas now. If you want to join a vibrant open source community of people that are passionate about helping evolve democracy online, we need your help. Join us here.
Guest author Edo Segal (@edosegal) has launched and sold several companies. In 2000 he founded eNow, a search engine for the Real-time Internet in an age that predated RSS as a popular medium. As such he has had a decade to think about its implications. He ultimately sold the company (renamed Relegence) to AOL in 2006 and today runs an Incubator/Investment vehicle called Futurity Ventures. He recently launched a new search engine for wisdom.
Photo credit: Flickr/White House.