Internet Democracy: From Idealist to Pragmatist

I can’t tell you how many times I have had someone tell me that we can change the world through an internet democracy. Seriously, it seems like every other week someone is sending me a link to an organization or a crowdfunding video claiming to represent the next frontier in online politics. My response is usually something along the lines of “So…?”

People have been using the internet to facilitate democracy for years now, but contrary to the understandings of many a young idealist (trust me, I have been there), it takes a lot more than a Facebook knock off and some romantic marketing copy to get us there. Democracy is hard, in-person and online. And there is a reason why so many people tune out, or don’t bother to do much else than vote (looking at you, young idealists). It’s the same reason that so many of my friends and family hit me up with questions in the days leading up to election day, because I have somehow been designated the “political guy”. The crux of the problem, and one the internet won’t soon solve, is that access and opportunity for participation constitute only half the battle. The real nut we need to crack is civic culture.

Let me give you an example…

About two weeks ago my company, whose stated mission is to use technology to improve civic engagement, helped to facilitate an online discussion and evaluation process for the City of Santa Cruz’s Water Supply Advisory Committee. In short, this group of appointed citizens has been charged with researching the local water supply and delivering a series of recommendations to the City Council about how solve our local water crisis–in the face of the worst drought on record.

As part of their work they decided to ask the community for ideas. And they delivered, in the form of over one hundred proposals that varied from composting toilets, to building new reservoirs, to using technology to condense water from the ambient air. Just about everything was on the table.

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Civinomics helped facilitate an online democracy experience regarding Santa Cruz water. San Lorenzo River pictured here. (Photo: Indy Bay)

Now you would think this would be the perfect opportunity to see online democracy in action, and it was, but it was by no means easy, and certainly not revolutionary–at least for the time being. While thousands of people were given the truly novel and unique opportunity to rate their fellow community member’s proposals and have an interactive discussion about where their water comes from, online, the reality is that their input may not actually change all that much. It’s not that they don’t have something to contribute, it’s just that the issue of water is extremely complex, and thus hard for the average person to provide meaningful insight on. In dealing with just water you have engineering and architectural considerations, legal ramifications (water and property rights), political and economic constraints, claims involving hydrology and chemistry that need to be evaluated, environmental and energy impacts, all above and beyond basic logistics–and the list goes on. You just simply can’t expect anyone with an internet connection to be able to comprehend all that.

Which brings me to the coup de gras of painful realizations for those who want to change the world via the internet: most issues are just as complex, if not more, than my water example. Water in itself is a very practical and straight forward thing, but problems involving social equity, representation, and of course, participation are even more difficult to solve because they deal mainly with the intangible human element. How do you value an emotional perspective, how can you weigh a given cultural norm against the practical nature of managing resources? These are hard questions to answer even when you are fully informed, but these are also the questions that inspire us most to move the needle toward greater civic equity.

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As part of my ongoing and ever evolving understanding of the limits and virtues of online democracy I have come to realize that you need more than just the ability to vote.  You need analysis, curation and narration. Put another way, you also need the media, the 4th estate, the engine of accountability that our parents once had (or believe they did). The average person simply can’t do it all alone.

And while it’s easy to complain about our current media landscape, to kick an industry while it’s down, it’s also easy to understand how it got there. Real journalism has given way to hyperbole and corporatism, while the daily newspaper has all but died in the face of the internet upheaval. Remember, the news is a business, and as fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for genuine news, the ones who are still willing to pay are only going to hear what they want.

So where do we go from here? Well there are no silver bullets for solving the problem of civic culture and media, but I’m sure the internet has a significant role to play. In this new world where anyone can create and share content is there a way to provide the access and opportunity while also providing the cultural impetus to want to participate in civic issues? Of course. The need has never been more apparent, which means that the opportunity has never been greater. We just need to keep exploring the possibilities and learning from our experiences.


  1. Saskia Lucas says:

    Very true and well stated. Thank you Robert.

  2. Nicely reasoned and expressed post, Robert. Few things are as simple as they can seem on the surface; there’s always work, but it’s often that hard work that gets the rewards. Or at least a clearer understanding.

  3. Jim Coffis says:

    The problem as I see it with the so called 4th estate is that it became a REALLY BIG business attracting the attention of financiers who saw a lot of free cash flow and the opportunities for consolidation. (As well as a few megalomaniacs with even grander ambitions.) We are left with the tatters of local news and huge media networks on TV and the Internet whose goal is to increase traffic not inform the citizenry. Until we remake the news “business” so that profit is not the primary goal I fear we will continue to see a lack of engagement and increasing polarization among those who are engaged.

  4. Jeff says:

    Very well said. Good points and thanks for sharing.

  1. […] the idea of direct democracy, and the potential for the internet to get us one step closer. I have written extensively on this topic, and have even given a TED talk about my perspective. One of the major takeaways from my experience […]

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