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AMAs, A2As, And The Growth Of Tech-Enabled Political Discourse

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Editor’s note: Jon Bischke is a founder of Entelo and is an advisor to several startups. In the interest of full disclosure, he also serves as a National Co-Chair for Technology for Obama (T4O). You can follow Jon on Twitter here.

It’s election season again and 2012 is likely to be remembered for many things, one of which is the amount of money spent on political advertising. Indeed, this year’s Presidential Campaign is likely to be the most expensive in history. But amidst the talk of Super PACs and $50,000-a-plate dinners attended by amateur videographers, an interesting and inspiring shift is taking place: The increasing ability of the average citizen to connect directly with candidates through technology.

Of course, tech-enabled political discourse is not new. Television in 1960 brought us the “Great Debates” between Kennedy and Nixon and forever changed how the public perceives politicians. And you can’t forget Howard Dean, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate whose prospects were greatly helped by the Internet (through his success in grassroots organizing via Meetup.com) only to have it play a role in his ultimate demise (Dean Scream anyone?). And many elected officials have taken to Facebook and Twitter in recent years, often using those services to directly answer questions from their constituents.
Still, 2012 seems different as politicians are communicating via a wider variety of channels and in greater depth than ever before. In January of this year President Obama participated in a Google+ Hangouts. Then, just last month, Obama took to Reddit to answer questions directly for Redditors in an AMA (Ask Me Anything), spurring more than 22,000 comments and 2.6 million unique visitors and leading the president to conclude, in allusion to a popular meme, that hosting an AMA was “NOT BAD!”

And it isn’t just the president getting up close and personal with his constituents. Lately Quora has been abuzz with famous politician sightings. Newark Mayor Cory Booker was one of the first to kick things off with a series of well-received answers. More recently newly appointed U.S. CTO Todd Park took to Quora to talk about the things that President Obama had done to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in the country.

Republicans are showing that technology’s not just for Democrats by getting into the mix as well. This month Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan answered a question asking whether the country is better off than it was four years ago. Republicans are often less active on many social media platforms (see recent research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project), so Representative Ryan’s use of this vehicle to convey his message is more evidence of this trend.

Government departments are recognizing the opportunity, as well. As Tommy Sowers, the newly appointed assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs, told me recently, “We want to speak to our veterans when, where, and how they want to communicate, which is increasingly on social networks. This isn’t a young veteran phenomenon, but an all veteran phenomenon.”

So why does this matter? Today it might be President Obama and Representative Ryan leading the charge, but this is only the beginning. Imagine if Senate and House races all around the country had candidates hosting AMAs where they could answer the most pressing questions from their states and districts. Or if Quora’s new Ask to Answer (A2A) feature became a common way for people to be able to ask things of their elected officials.

At the same time, it’s possible that these early attempts at communicating directly with constituents are simply marketing stunts. A number of people have criticized efforts like the Obama Administration’s We the People initiative (read Laura Meckler in The Wall Street Journal) and the President’s AMA (see Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic) as lacking substance. While these criticisms are fair, theories on disruptive innovation suggest that disruption in its early stages is often dismissed as a “toy”.

If this is indeed the early stage of a disruptive shift in politics, it could represent the further democratization of our representative democracy. Do you have an excellent question for a politician and enough clout within your respective community? You get to ask it, regardless of how much money you’ve donated to the candidate or who you’re connected to. Want to bring forth an idea for some new legislation? Maybe those Quora credits will help you get on the right person’s radar.

While this trend may be in its infancy, it’s worth keeping an eye on. Social networking was just getting going in 2004 when George W. Bush won re-election, and mobile computing and smartphones were only starting to take hold in 2008 when Obama took the White House. If we’re just starting to talk about how technology is enabling direct discourse between constituents and their elected officials in 2012, it will be interesting to see what 2016 will look like.