Monday, July 28, 2008

Netroots crafting Democratic party platform with collaborative software

We've been hearing about the use of collaborative software for crafting platforms. The Republican Party unveiled a crowdsourcing tool for their platform recently (although it has been overwhelmed by Ron Paul followers agitating for a return to the gold standard). Now the Netroots are using a tool that sounds more finely crafted for this sort of work:

Stern, a former economic development consultant with a masters degree from the London School of Economics, described the project as "very much a synthesis between a wiki and Digg, or between a wiki and Soapblox," the popular community-building software platform. "It's exactly in the middle. It does things that neither allow on their own." Stern is based in Washington DC, and and works with New York City-based partners Vanessa Scanfeld and Dan Scanfeld.

In one of the platform's more intriguing features, when contributors start to edit a plank the software suggests similar prior contributions and suggests that you "Borrow This Sentence." That language is pulled and added to the new version, but the original author's name stays attached to that bit of contributed text, throughout the plank's remixes and permutations. The idea, says Stern, is to "give people credit for their words and ideas." The advantage over a wiki is that no one author's version is dominant -- at least until the project is closed, and only then by community agreement, not by virtue of who edited it last.

The goal? Consensus. And efficient consensus at that. Stern: "Our assumption is that no one person is going to have all the best words and ideas. The idea is to fuse them together, synthesizing ideas into a single, concise text." Each proposed plank is rated from one stars to ten, and the highest rated plank gets to the top. The site now has ten planks categories, from health care to media and communications to electoral reform, and about 75 contributed plank versions.

This sounds like a really interesting tool. I worry, however, that the sort of polarization we tend to see on existing left and right discussion sites will make its way into the platform with this sort of tool. My colleague Trish Roberts-Miller might call this "agonistic expressive discourse," the kind that normally marks a homogeneous enclave. The question, I think, is how well the tool would scale up to include minority-perspective input.

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