What was our quality of life before you or I had the ability to hold an indirect conversation with Kim Kardashian, Rob Delany, or even Nicholas Kristof (I’ll wait while you Google… the last two) from the comfort of our own beds, classrooms, or Starbucks lines? I’m glad neither of us will ever need to try and recount life before twitter, unless it’s in a completely ironic book-deal-with-urban outfitters-way, which lets be real, probably got started on Twitter. If you’re someone who uses twitter hopefully you’ve been able to reap some of its benefits up to this point; free concert tickets, free exclusive expensive item of clothing, or most shamelessly – free acknowledgement from your favorite celebrity (up to interpretation), journalist, or …politician? Lets take that to the next level and assume in 140 characters you hold the power of winning contests or giveaways (to make all your twitter-less friends jealous), whilst potentially influencing policy reform. Before anyone can jump in with a “neurotic is endearing” joke a-la Woody Allen, I will cut him or her off and propose: is this too much responsibility, or too much power to give someone with a twitter account? Remember all those free things you watched your friends (barely do anything to) win? Why would it be such an issue if We Let Social Media Run the Country? Besides, democracy is free anyways, right?
In Brian Wheeler’s article from BBC News he analyzes the moral implications of using social media to make indirect democracy more direct. Wheeler asks: If politicians were able to skim your tweets – hopefully appropriately #hashtaged for efficiency sake, take what your saying to heart, and really bring representative democracy to life, could this be more harmful than helpful? He answers his own question by stating: “ …it would probably work. In theory.”
To the opening point of efficiency, reading a message capped at 140 characters would be far less time-consuming for a politician (or intern) than listening to voicemails or even reading emails from citizens. Wheeler explains, the widespread availability of social media is something so phenomenal, the potential “connection to-be” between legislator and citizen is something only last seen in “’ancient Greece when you just gathered in the market place and you could have a direct vote on things.’”
Nancy Baym writes in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age the factors that have created the digital divide (those completely adapted to media technology versus those who aren’t), are education, age, location, and income, and gender, though these factors could be just what Politicians need and are missing. If the digital divide in western democratic countries is so minimal, why couldn’t e-democracy be the next logical step to get more unheard voices to their representatives?
If this all sounds overly idealistic, Wheeler suggests “limits” and criticisms of e-democracy. First and foremost, Wheeler explains social media would not and should not become the end all be all of communication between citizen and legislator. Just because technological affordances present a more efficient line of communication, it would be overzealous to assume that social media could replace other “traditional” forms of communication between legislator and citizen, especially voting! Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks suggests, “’politicians should take advantage of the vast ocean of vaguely political chat sloshing around on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the rest.’” However, she notes, “’Social media is not a giant focus group and we shouldn’t confuse it with that, we shouldn’t think it is the same.’” Furthermore, Wheeler feels that introduction of social media should in no way become a technologically deterministic move for progressing societies. Just because you’re not using social media to communicate with your representative, you should not be left out of the discussion, nor should the political sphere rely on this.
Additionally, there is much concern surrounding the authenticity of the user. As Wheeler explains, there is no reliable way to check if the user is who they claim to be as well as if they accurately reflect the sentiment they may be presenting. In other words, how could politicians and other users alike be sure that there weren’t people specifically using social media to instigate problems? In other words, [internet] trolling. Baym also discusses this dilemma in her book, and adds, “social media convey[s] very little information about the identities of those with whom we are communicating. In some circumstances, this renders people anonymous, leading to both opportunity and terror.”
The most popular drawback of e-democracy is the original aforementioned advantage, the outstanding number of people using social media. In quoting former British Prime Minster Gordon Brown’s polling chief Wheeler adds, “They also have a habit of behaving like an irrational mob, ‘shutting down debate quite aggressively.’” With the both metaphorical and literal buffer of a keyboard or cell phone, the understanding of “real” and “not-real,” is blurred and Wheeler fears the indistinct social-shame for seeming outlandish may go unsanctioned within the social media context.
Revisiting Wheeler’s question, “Why not let social media run the country?” we can address why he believes this should work in theory. He presents his argument much like Nancy Baym’s discourse on the social shaping of technology. Wheeler feels technology is a positive beneficial tool, and can also be used for reasons originally unintended, however unfortunately it can never be this simple for a few key reasons Baym addresses. First, the domestication of technology is more time consuming than composing a tweet. Also, the concept of politicians skimming or surveilling (see?) twitter is more uncomfortable than we’re willing to feel. Wheeler addresses how this could complicate the means of “private” versus “public” and we’re just not there yet. Lastly, the very notion that a user’s thoughts are indeed public could inspire harassment and other significantly awful things. In theory this should work, but for now we might just have to wait.