The Long Tail in e-democracy

Wired editor, Chris Anderson, unleashed a whirlwind of discussion when his article “The Long Tail” appeared in the October 2004 issue of Wired. He had found a useful way of getting to grips with just *how* digital technologies can shift the landscape, particular for commerce. The Long Tail caught on because his pitch wasn’t overly simplistic. There were no “information wants to be free” mantras nor the Internet changes *everything* type assertions. It was backed by real world numbers from real businesses.

The Long Tail concept is a real corker, simple and graphical, perfect for stimulating a good brainstorm. I’ve really enjoyed every session I’ve tried the Long Tail in – using it to open new potential directions or challenge assumptions. I’ve been stunned when people in seemingly unrelated fields have seen a short presentation from me and been talking “Tail” all day.

Some time before the General Election I was doing some thinking on what the ideal online MP might be like. What would they do? What would their site look like? Much of the output is still filed as being “In Progress” but it did help when I was putting some candidate blogs together.

Anyhow, somewhere along the line my ideal MP thoughts collided with Long Tail ideas, here’s what has emerged so far.

Much of the literature on citizen participation leans on Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation” (Arnstein, 1969) which wonderfully structures involvement. I’ve found a derivative graphic which I think is more detailed and more current with today’s terminology. The “Continuum of Citizen Influence” which I found in (Anttiroiko, 2004) is originally from (Bishop and Davis, 2002). As you can see at the top we have maximum influence which would be direct citizen control on the levers of government.

Continuum of Citizen Influence

The reality obviously isn’t that a nation isn’t at one level or another. Different people participate at different levels – MPs do have fairly direct control while many only occasionally partake in the one-way processes at the bottom of the pile. A small number of people have large amounts of influence and a huge number of people hold massively diverse levels of power. In other words, ff we lay this continuum of participants on its side we have a long tail-type graph. Aha!

The Long Tail of Power

The left of the long tail is the top of the continuum, where the most influence is wielded through more direct forms of interaction.

So in my graph I fudge things a little for the y-axis. Perhaps it is perceived power, or maybe it represents the quality and number of democratic interactions performed by people. I think in fact that both types of measurements would be Long Tail-ish.

In my view the big red arrow is where the action’s at. Digital divide aside (a big aside, I know), e-democracy tools as simple as Google dramatically reduce the barriers to entry for activism. The tools can push people up the long tail towards greater perceived power and more, better democratic interactions. I think that kind of possibility is awesome.

Like for Amazon or the iTunes Music Store, the new “market” in e-democracy is down the tail, using the low-cost, mass-reach of the Internet to service these less influential people’s democratic needs.

I don’t like using too much marketing-speak when we’re dealing with democracy, this isn’t about money, but it is about making a sale. Repeatedly. Citizens need to be tempted to try an e-democracy service and convinced to keep using it. Sales and marketing has a place. However if our sales techniques succeed then we end up with a potential “supply-side” problem as my massively simple graph below highlights.

The Limits of Attention

As the number of citizen interactions increase people such as MPs and ministers will grind to a halt. I don’t think the curve is a straight-line, technologies are helping politicians to scale along with the increasing demand for their attention, but only to an extent. I’m reading Bill Clinton’s autobiography at the moment and there’s an interesting little section on when he worked for Senator Fulbright in the 1960s detailing the techniques used to help the senator cope with news clippings, mail shots and campaigning. Technology helping representatives deal with a growing demands on one person’s attention is nothing new, but as my graph shows, it will only carry us so far.

(Clinton even argues in a later chapter that he feels members of the House of Representatives are participating in ever more negative politics due to the sheer exhaustion created by their continual meetings, weekly travel back to constituencies and the 24-7 news cycle. Does one need a small geography for constituency politics to survive?)

I’m sure MPs have already met their total attention span limit, but not solely from citizen interactions, they fill their time on many other activities. Vital committees which help hold government to account, party duties and second jobs for some. There is no one right mix of how representatives should spend their time but as citizen expectations rise and e-democracy tools improve, how can we help the supply-side of the democratic world? I think WriteToThem is fantastic, for example, but as it gets ever more popular do the messages sent get devalued? I don’t have answers but I sense many questions.

(Chris Andersen, author of the Long Tail article, continues the Long Tail debate on his blog as he writes a book on the topic)

*References*
Anttiroiko, A.-V. (2004). Introduction to Democratic e-Governance. In Malkia, M., Anttiroiko, A.-V., & Savolainen, R. (Eds.), eTransformation in Government: new directions in government and politics. (pp. 22-49). London: Idea Group Publishing.
Arnstein, S. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216-24. (Online version by David Wilcox).
Bishop, P., & Davis, G. (2002). Mapping Public Participation in Policy Choices. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 61(1), 14-29.

*This post was republished on egovmonitor 4/7/05*