Mother Jones: What is the most exciting new use of technology in politics?
Jimmy Wales: I think there are two things. One is social networks and the other is wikis. I think what’s interesting about wikis is that they provide a new type of discourse for the Internet, a much more calm and reasoned discourse than you typically get from blogs. For social networks, there are some really interesting implications for grassroots organizing of politics. We saw a lot of this in the last presidential cycle around the Dean campaign, but things have come a long way since then in terms of understanding how to make connections and get people organized online. I think it’s going to have some major impact on the upcoming election. We are going to be returning to an era of participatory politics rather than broadcast politics.
MJ: What’s currently the most overhyped open-source politics technology?
JW: Wikis and social networking are just tools. They are really fabulous tools, but they are overhyped and that inevitably is going to lead to backlash after the entire world doesn’t transform itself miraculously overnight.
MJ: What part of the use of new web tools makes the political process less democratic, and what part makes it more democratic?
JW: I think it’s pretty clear that these tools are allowing a lot more people to get involved in politics in a meaningful way. We’ve seen how grassroots journalism by blogs has had an impact at various points politically, as ordinary people have amplified stories that were being ignored by the traditional press. In terms of which tools are making politics less democratic, that’s hard to say. All of these tools are really about people participating. Almost anything is better than three network TV outlets completely controlling the national discourse with their nightly broadcasts. We’ve moved a long way from that, and that’s important.
MJ: What is the effect of open-source politics on old models of campaigning, such as polling and TV attack ads?
JW: Hopefully, you start to see a little bit of diminished effectiveness when people can talk back to attack ads. In the past, when you’d see a vicious attack ad, you might find it distasteful, but you might also wonder if that person did that horrible thing. Online, you begin to see some of those things start to unravel, and people responding and saying, “Yeah, this is an attack ad, and this is what really happened.” Then you get a more interesting dialogue around that.
A lot of the polling that goes on is push polling, in that the questions being asked are being framed to get answers they want. Those kinds of things get harder to sustain when you have a large body of people who can push back and put out an alternative point of view.
MJ: How will all of this affect most Americans?
JW: I see a possibility in the future that good compromise ideas that don’t currently emerge very well from our political institutions can emerge from ordinary people, and we may get a healthier process, and a more middle-of-the-road, practical solution to various problems.
MJ: Will new technologies bring anyone into politics for the first time?
JW: The best way to answer that question is to ask who that won’t be. I don’t think we’re going to see the poorest people getting involved using technological tools, not right away anyway. If you don’t have a computer, and using a laptop is not part of your living and breathing existence, the idea that some political campaigns are being organized online and people are getting excited and meeting each other and connecting through online means isn’t necessarily going to touch those groups of people. And that’s something we should probably think about, to make sure that we address that in the long run.
MJ: How is this changing the content or substance of politics?
JW: One of the concerns people have had about blogs is that they are going to have a very divisive influence because people only read blogs that they agree with, and they won’t get their news from the mainstream media, which are supposed to be neutral. But you see a couple of things happening. First, blogs are hardly the only form of new media. People come to Wikipedia all the time, which is quite clearly as neutral as anything can be, I think. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. At Wikipedia itself, we are now seeing a large volume of information being created that has been put through an extensive process of compromise, with people from very diverse viewpoints really hammering away at it to find some compromised view that everybody is satisfied with.
Also, you see people who are really active in reading blogs do end up reading opinions that they disagree with because bloggers get into arguments and link up back and forth and have those debates. So people do get exposed to alternative viewpoints, far more than they would if they had one source of information. I think it’s pretty clear that people are getting better information than they used to.
MJ: What pitfalls are out there for candidates seeking to harness open-source technologies?
JW: There are huge pitfalls. If you don’t understand these things, if you come at things from a broadcast media perspective and imagine you are going to have an impact, you’re probably just going to look like an idiot. We occasionally see politicians spamming people and things like that and getting backlash. But there are some terms and buzzwords in our industry that can be really damaging and misleading to people coming in from the outside, like this term “crowdsourcing,” which I find quite offensive, because it’s like, “Gee, there’s some work to be done, so hey, let’s get random people in the public to do it for free for us.” It totally overlooks what’s really going on, which is genuine community, people who have made friends, and get to know each other and make decisions together, and have to be dealt with as independent, thinking, adult people. Politicians who don’t appreciate that and think they’re just going to say, “Gee, it’s awfully expensive to send out fliers, let’s make the Internet do it for us for free,” they’re going to totally miss what it’s all about.
MJ: Will these new technologies be abused for political gain?
JW: It’s pretty hard to abuse a community, because they don’t put up with it very well. It’s easy to envision how to abuse a local newspaper if you are buddies with the owner and the owner is willing to put the paper behind you. In the old days, that was pretty powerful and pretty common. It’s a lot harder to imagine how you’re going to be buddies with 10,000 bloggers who may or may not like you.
Lastly, the term “open-source politics” is a bad name for what’s going on here. I might call it Web 2.0 politics or something like that. “Open source” refers to a very particular set of licensing conditions in the software world, like freedom to copy, modify, redistribute, commercially or noncommercially, which is a pretty narrow aspect of this. Most of what we are talking about has almost nothing to do with open-source software and almost nothing to do with open source. You can take that or leave it.