How to manage engagement and participation - the democratic process in a web2.0 context

By mdangeard, published at 6 February 2009 - 6:48pm, last updated 5 years 25 weeks ago.

eCairn recently published a very interesting analysis on what happens when you open a site and ask people to contribute ideas. They mention Dell Ideastorm and the Obama administration Citizen's Briefing Book from the Obama administration, and I have to agree with the conclusion: you have to know what to expect when opening up the doors to input with no filtering. And where and how you "listen" to your audience makes a difference:

1- if you ask everybody to provide input on a website, and then use a rating system to decide which issues are important, then what you will get is not what the most important issues are for the community as a whole, but rather what the most important ideas are for the best organized group within the community. Huge difference. Basically chances are that one or a few communities will take over the site and monopolize the conversation. And if there is no moderation, then you will end up just listening to what they have to say regardless of what others may think.
In the case of the Obama experiment (Citizen's Briefing Book), the winning idea is "legalize marijuana", and while I have no doubt that they won their ranking fair and straight, I have a hard time believing this is one of the most pressing issue right now.

One site did try an improved version of the process: Change.org had a 2 phase selection:
- First anybody could submit any idea in various pre-defined categories
- Second, they qualified the top 3 ideas of each category to then have them all compete together for the final selection of the top 10.
Legalizing Marijuana is still in the final top 10, you have to give credit to this community for being very good at mobilizing their supporters online, but there are other ideas that were able to emerge from the process, and it was a good attempt at leveling the playing field so that other ideas from not so popular categories could be considered.
As it is done with elections in the US, maybe one extra step could have also been considered: having each category elect an equal number of representatives to represent their specific concerns, so that they are the ones that vote in the second round. Then it is no longer an issue of how many vote for an ideas, but rather how many of a representative sample of the population get convinced by the ideas that were selected.

2- the other option (other than opening a site to invite input) is to map conversations happening everywhere in the blogosphere or other places, then you can have a much better idea of who is talking about what where. And you will have a very different view of which communities are active on the web, and what their top issues are. And then you can specifically target these communities (based on how relevant they are to you at a given time) to address their specific issues.
With this second approach, we still have an open space where everbody can express their opinions (the blogs or the web in general), and then the leadership can decide what to do with what they see. No ratings involved, just the good judgement of whoever is listening. Individuals are doing it today, they pick and choose which blogs they want to read and comment on, and they may have their own blog(s) to contribute to the conversation. Corporation and the government should at a minimum do the same. And then decide if they want to engage in other ways (back to #1 above).

Having said this, and since this post was inspired by an analysis from my friends at eCairn, I should also mention that the service that they have developed is perfect for doing just that: teams listening to conversations, engaging with bloggers and measuring the impact to this engagement. Something you may want to consider for your business...