Given that I’m a Professional Internet Guy, it’s probably not wise for me to spend as much time as I do telling people that the web is less important than they think. But guys, seriously: the web is less important than you think — especially the new administration’s use of the web.
Kottke’s analysis of the new robots.txt file at whitehouse.gov is the latest and most ludicrous example of our collective fascination with everything the Obama team does online. When placed on a webserver, a robots.txt file determines what sections of a website are ignored by search engines and other services that employ web crawling scripts. The Bush administration had a lengthy robots.txt file; the Obama administration does not. When someone bothers to point this out, they’re trying to imply that Obama will be less secretive than Bush. It’s a cute point to make, but c’mon — are we really supposed to believe that this means something? Does that mean, then, that the Obama administration’s ETag-enabled HTTP headers signal its commitment to energy conservation? Does the administration’s use of Microsoft IIS prove that the Obama campaign’s embrace of open source technologies was meaningless? No and no. It’s just a goddamn website. The president is obviously not involved in these sorts of mundane engineering decisions; but more broadly, it’s almost always a mistake to look for symbolism in such decisions.
Of course, I doubt that Kottke would claim to be making a serious point. In this regard, the online reaction to change.gov was much sillier. As that site launched and evolved, I saw a lot of folks expressing sentiments like this: “Look how high issue X has been voted on change.gov! In the age of the web, how long can politicians afford to ignore the will of the people?!”
When it comes to change.gov, the answer to this question is pretty clearly “indefinitely”. Seriously: does anyone really think something was accomplished by voting marijuana legalization into the third-most-popular spot? That lots of people would like to smoke weed legally and are willing to say so — so long as saying it costs them no time, money or liberty — that’s not exactly a direct-democratic revelation. Nor does it represent some sort of wisdom-of-crowds, well-informed policy prescription that deserves respect. I’m in favor of marijuana legalization, but the idea that the expression of this preference on change.gov is worthy of political attention is laughable.
Here’s the thing: the executive branch is pretty important, and it has been for a while. For this reason, various institutions supporting the interchange of information between the presidency and the public have evolved, from the White House Press Corps to the Gallup poll to, um, the legislative branch. This process actually works pretty well — it’s not as if the president finds himself scratching his head, saying, “Gosh, I wonder what would be popular with the public?” The additional information-lubrication that technology can bring to bear on this problem will offer very slight benefits.
Now of course, you can say that the will of the people isn’t sufficiently respected by our political institutions. But representing public opinion online isn’t going to make it magically attract any more official notice than it does in other formats. In fact, decreasing the cost of expressions of policy preference arguably serves to reduce the attention they receive. Consider how much value congressional offices place on phone calls versus paper mail or email. A hint: the harder and less form-letter-ready the medium, the more likely the staffer/glorified-CSR you deal with will be to make a tic mark on your behalf in the office tally for HR-whatever. How much attention do you think your opinion is going to garner when you give voice to it by clicking on an AJAX thumbs-up button? How much do you think it deserves?
I’ll go further: to whatever extent the Obama administration is paying attention to change.gov, they’re making a mistake. I mean, look, it’s a nice idea. But if it’s anything other than a cynical PR exercise, it’s also a basically undemocratic empowerment of a particular constituency on the basis of the arbitrary criterion of Web 2.0-iness — which is admittedly better than gender or skin color, but still. I thought this rankled when Comcast did it on Twitter, and I think it does here, too — although not as much, since the web is less of a niche forum than Twitter (and despite “what to do about Iraq?” probably being a more important question than “why aren’t my HD channels working?”).
The one genuinely noteworthy aspect of all this online business is the direct line of communication it provides from the president to the public. Again, the import of this has been overstated: for all of its shortcomings, in most cases the media’s coverage of the administration will be more useful to the public than the administration’s presentation of itself. In the same way that you might visit the Toyota website when shopping for a car but give greater consideration to more disinterested sources of information like Consumer Reports, there’s only so much attention that the public will — or should — pay to what the administration has to say for itself. The one big exception to this is the not-infrequent case where the media’s market-determined forms preclude the efficient communication of information to the public, as when a nuanced sentiment from a speech is reduced to a sound bite. The president’s online presence can offer a solution to this problem, achieving the (relatively few) advantages of a state media organ without any of the market- and opinion-distorting downsides.
But again: let’s not overstate things. It’s great that this capability exists; it’s great that whitehouse.gov has gotten a new coat of paint. But these capabilities have existed for a while now, and nobody’s given a shit. The president’s weekly radio address has been on iTunes since 2005 — how often have you found yourself listening to it at the gym? It’s naive to think that the internet is going to supplant all the existing ways we have for the government to listen to the public; and it’s silly to think that the public is going to remain keenly interested in what the government has to say just because Obama’s hired someone who knows CSS. This is all useful stuff, but it’s not going to revolutionize our society.
The web is great and I’m glad our institutions are getting online. And the internet is changing — and already has changed — politics. But the real revolution here lies in the ways that technology makes it easier for people to organize into groups — groups that can then make their members’ opinions heard through the traditional levers we have for affecting our government. Don’t let me dissuade anyone from signing the urgent online petitions in their inboxes. But — so far, at least — all of the online attempts to completely disintermediate our democracy have been hopeless — even when they haven’t also been hopelessly lame.