At the recent RSA
event on the Social Impact of the Web, there was some debate
about how the UK
prime minister's e-petitions programme should evolve, with
much of the discussion centring on the problems of incorporating
deliberative elements alongside the essentially push-button
format. Tom Steinberg of MySociety,
the organisation behind the site, called for a public debate about
this. Here are my brief thoughts.
The main problem here is the format of any deliberation. Large
scale moderation seems to me to be inescapable in any element of
user-generated content on a site such as this, but forums make it
that much more difficult to do.
Do we want additional extra user-generated content and (partly)
user-controlled deliberation added on top of some of the
e-petitions? If we do, perhaps a standard threaded forum might not
be the way to go. The problem with forums is that:
a) they're designed to facilitate confrontation and therefore
flaming is more likely
b) in an environment like this, they may turn people off who don't
feel that they have the expertise to contribute (one of the
rationales for the e-petitions site is to provide a facility for
those who do not have the resources (economics, skills, contacts
etc) to establish their own campaign sites).
c) they are extremely risky for politicians and public servants
and this tends to make them costly to moderate.
Given this context, a 'story-telling' approach, with moderated
comments, plus user ratings, might just work.
A successful example here is the BBC
news site's user-generated content. Much of it based on a
story-telling, reactive model. Stories are powerful, and people
feel comfortable telling them.
Citizens could write stories of limited length about why the
petition matters to them, and a sample of these could be opened up
to comments and ratings. Activists will tell the stories, the less
active will make brief comments, and the 'ordinary' supporters
will rate. Highly rated stories will rise to the top of the list.
Rating stories is different from polling - which is, after all,
built in to the petition format in the first place.
Whatever you go for, being choosy about the petitions (say just
the top twenty, defined in terms of signatory numbers sampled over
a set period of time) to be opened up to the stories format also
Introducing stories, comments, and ratings on those stories
introduces some controlled deliberative interaction and makes it a
more human and granular website. It encourages greater civility
and is less risky but more innovative than forums.
What do you think? Are there better ways forward for the prime
[Crossposted at the New
Political Communication Unit blog]