This week's Personal Democracy Forum in New York was the sixth annual confab of social media geeks, government 2.0 types, non-profit changemakers and digital dreamers of all shapes and sizes - but it was really Year One AO: After Obama.
Last year's social media avalanche, loosed from the peaks of a historic national election, made everything seem possible; armies of do-gooders wielding iPhones and tweeting for change were poised to radically remake both the polity and our vast social commons. (Well ok, that was #IranElection two weeks ago as well - but you get the idea).
This year, it seemed to me, doubt walked the halls at PDF, and optimism tempered by experience kept both the Twitterstream and the panels and speeches well out of the red on my hand-held hype meter. Indeed, the very word "Obama" seemed to be sharply discounted in its usage around the Time Warner Center - used more respectfully (and sparingly) as a reference to a new(ish) Administration facing a myriad of challenges foreign and domestic than as a harbinger of of sweeping, digitally-interconnected change.
That's no knock on the President, especially at a conference where progressive-leaning attendees clearly outnumber their conservative counterparts. ("Republicans don't really don't care about community and all that," snorted GOP digital operative David All, as if to cement his side's outsider status at a gathering largely devoted to more open government). Rather, I think it was a "settling in for the long road ahead" moment, a groupthink realization that big change isn't easy, and that turning an entity the size of the Federal Government quickly is a bit like spinning the Queen Mary into a watery parking space.
Yet the fact that 900 attendees would gather to talk about the possibility for wired change - both 'CauseWired' to borrow the theme of my book, and politics-oriented - in the current economic dust storm (and in a non-election year) was very impressive. And some of the themes and news bytes well worth recording:
The talk about the super-hyped role of Twitter and other social media in the protests surrounding the disputed Iranian elections was mainly about authenticity, crowd-sourced reporting, and whether governments could effectively shut down digital communications. Yet it was stunning to hear Randi Zuckerberg admit that Facebook doesn't know if the "official" page on the social network for Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi is genuine or not, considering the missives published there are often taken for the official voice of the protest. And it was hardly a triumphalist sentiment that NPR's new media wizard Andy Carvin shared when he emphasized that Twitter users "have to be skeptical of where the information is coming from."
Yet there was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's social media maven Alec Ross extolling the use of digital platforms and networks to change how Americans face the rest of the world. Ross argued that everybody who lives in our network society now has the power "to be a Paul Revere" and sound the alarm for everyone else, noting that it was a couple of young people on Facebook who organized massive rallies against the Colombian guerilla group FARC. "It doesn't always have to be over the mahogany table with porcelain cups of tea," said Ross of crowd-sourced statecraft; it was Ross who leaned on Twitter not to shit down for maintainance during the height of the Iranian protests.
And there were a couple of big "government 2.0" announcements at PDF: the Obama Administration's launch via CIO Vivek Kundra of the new U.S. Federal IT Dashboard, which provides at-a-glance access to the budget process, and Mayor Bloomberg's announcement (via Skype) of a "big apps" contest for developers who mash up the city's data feeds in ways that benefit the public. Such thinking about sharing information, said PDF co-founder Andrew Rasiej, shows that "we do have Big Brother now - Big Brother now is us."
That might be the ideal, but as a couple of speakers argued, nirvana on the digital public common's ain't exactly nigh. “Can poor people see streaming video that calls out corruption in government and in business?” Josh Silver, the executive director and co-founder of Free Press, in reaction to a discussion about President Obama's broadband. And Microsoft's Danah Boyd called out class distinctions on the digital commons - to the mainly white, non-deprived, plugged-in geekage: "We still don't have a language to talk about classism in America today," she argued in an eye-opening presentation. "There is no universal public online."