This week, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) launched a new website called McCainpedia to amass and distribute information for its campaign against Senator John McCain. The site is likely to find a measure of success in providing material about McCain's record to sympathetic bloggers and to journalists looking for what is literally the "party line." It misses out, however, on what we regard as a historic chance to achieve a greater impact by engaging the public in what has too long been an elite pursuit.
In appearance, McCainpedia resembles Wikipedia, displaying tabs and navigation links familiar to users of that site, with which it shares software. McCainpedia, however, is clearly labeled "A Project of the Democratic Party." A difference in the philosophies of the two sites becomes clear when one looks at McCainpedia's About page, which states:
"Unlike some wikis, McCainpedia is read-only and can't be edited by the public. This allows us to fully validate all of the information that appears, ensuring accuracy and reliability."
On the same page, the site's creators forthrightly acknowledge that they "debated whether or not to let the public edit articles," and ultimately could not devise a way to reconcile the advantages of open editing by the public with the desire to maintain their standards.
By invoking the wiki frame, the DNC inadvertently sets up expectations that its site cannot meet. In the process of becoming one of the web's most visited destinations, Wikipedia established itself as the archetype of the wiki category, which is popularly regarded as a website that anyone can edit. While it is true, as the DNC points out, that some organizations maintain wikis for internal use and restrict who can edit them, to announce the public launch of a wiki is to call upon the common understanding that the public will be able to participate in the construction of information on the site.
Publicizing a wiki that only insiders can edit is akin to introducing a blog that does not allow comments. Despite any advantages that may come from such a technology, breaking with the conventions established by the frame creates dissonance, which can lead to charges of hypocrisy, manipulation, or simply being out-of-touch.
Social media entrepreneurs interviewed by Wired were critical of the site's resistance to the wiki ethos. While acknowledging that the site has some value, Isaac Garcia, CEO of Central Desktop, called it an oxymoron to create a wiki that the public could not edit, adding that it, "perpetuates that silo approach to communication." Ravi Singh, CEO of ElectionMall.com, contends that the party's desire to control the message ended up defeating the purpose of the technology. Social media critic Craig Stoltz went further, calling McCainpedia anti-social media that "exploits public familiarity with a hip new communication form ... and then aggressively misapplies it."
The difficulties of McCainpedia involve more than technology and packaging. They are also about a defining struggle between elite and popular democracy. Our former Rockridge Institute colleague Glenn W. Smith has contrasted elite democracy, a top-down model of politics that treats citizens in the way that marketers treat consumers, with the netroots-led popular democracy movement that has challenged it. In the context of that struggle, McCainpedia, in its current form, reflects the top-down politics of the past, in which knowledge creation is the right of elites. McCainpedia aspires to be a useful tool for the netroots, but it limits their involvement to spreading the word of elites, as though activists on the ground are too unruly to produce much of value. This perspective ignores the wisdom of crowds that has been critical to Wikipedia's success.
Although the DNC's concerns are understandable, the closed nature of McCainpedia represents a missed opportunity to innovate by placing faith and responsibility in the hands of a broader community of contributors. Fears that a more authentic wiki would be overrun by Republicans posting "McCain Rulez!!!" or by overzealous Democrats inventing stories to defame McCain are simply misplaced. Making McCainpedia participatory need not mean simply throwing the site open to anyone on the Internet to create or edit without any standards. It could begin with the many thousands of members of the DNC's existing community who have already been participating through PartyBuilder. This could form the basis of a committed core of contributors who share a common understanding of the site's mission. Structures and processes would also be needed to enable people to submit information consistent with the standards of the site, including proper documentation of all facts presented, and means to review such information. Active members of the community could be empowered by their peers to review anonymous submissions to the site. These practices differ from those of Wikipedia in some respects, but they would remain consistent with the openness and community participation that wikis imply.
Imagine what such a community could accomplish. The short-term advantage of creating a more comprehensive site than party insiders could create with timely information that readers want to share would only be the beginning. The effort could even help to bring together some Democrats who have been at odds with each other over the course of a hard-fought primary campaign. It could also give birth to a new mode of political engagement that would carry on far beyond the November election. Those who would gain experience contributing their research, writing, editing, and online organizing skills to McCainpedia would have much to offer in other campaigns and political movements. Over time, the DNC could draw upon the community to produce grassroots research and information that advance state and local Democratic efforts across the country.
The tension between promoting a message and enlisting the support of a community is real, not only for the Democratic Party, but also for businesses and other organizations. Organizations that seek both to empower and to benefit from community need to rethink how they do business, a subject we explore regularly on our hivethrive blog. When there is internal resistance to giving community a say, taking small steps that serve as a proof of concept can sometimes allay concerns, build the capacity to collaborate, and lead to more openness in the future. Simply adopting a form that looks participatory, but, in reality is not, does nothing to engage the power of community and risks alienating people with a false promise.
Republican politicians and party officials often try to portray Democrats as "elitists" who are distant from "real Americans." It would be poetic justice if a spate of Republican defeats were achieved not only through growing Democratic registration, organizing, and fundraising efforts by the grassroots and netroots, but also by an unprecedented open research effort by "real Americans" that caught Republican politicians off-guard. This could still happen if the DNC is willing to trust the progressive community.
Evan Frisch and Joe Brewer are the creators of a new project called hivethrive to transform progressive understandings of prosperity, wealth and community. They both previously served on the staff of the Rockridge Institute.