could we crowdsource civic renewal?

I am professionally and personally committed to “civic renewal“: strengthening the capacities of citizens to solve problems, influence government, and create public goods. In the past, citizens gained those capacities as members of organizations, but we have lost most of the relevant ones. On the other hand, we now have the Internet and all its tools for online engagement. Could we bypass organizations and create a loose, self-organized, completely voluntary network for civic renewal?

“Crowdsourcing” means issuing an open call to collaborate on some common task, such as improving open-source software, contributing entries to Wikipedia, or detecting fraud and abuse in a government’s budget. Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations is a sophisticated statement of the crowdsourcing idea, albeit without a specific focus on civic renewal.

Helpfully, Shirky invokes Ronald Coase’s “theory of the firm,” first proposed in 1937. Coase set out to explain why firms existed, since one might expect that in a market, individuals would simply come together to produce and sell goods. In fact, that occasionally happens: some independent movies are made by ad hoc teams that hold together only for the duration of the production. But independent films are unusual; much more important in the global marketplace are relatively durable companies that have administrative hierarchies, clear boundaries, fairly stable personnel, and offices that serve regular functions, such as payroll, legal counsel, and sales.

Coase explained that the transaction costs necessary to put together ad hoc teams were usually too high; firms were more efficient, even though their bureaucracies introduced costs. One could say the same thing about not-for-profit associations in Coase’s era. Like firms, the NAACP, the Knights of Columbus, and the League of Women Voters saved transaction costs for individuals who were interested in working together.

However, as Shirky argues, information technology has now reduced transaction costs to the point that it is often no longer necessary to create firms or other organizations. He offers (pp. 31-33) a compelling example: the “extravagant and weird” Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, New York. This annual event is evidently worth documenting and describing in detail. Decades ago, it wouldn’t have been covered unless media companies sent reporters or someone organized a newsletter just for the parade. They would have needed funding, personnel, and an audience. But now, anyone who takes a picture or writes a blog post about the Mermaid Parade can cheaply give it away online. Moreover, if people use common phrases to identify (“tag”) all descriptions of the parade, then anyone who searches for those tags will find a whole anthology of descriptions and photos. The most popular material will rise to the top in the search results.

In this case, the traditional functions of a magazine are rendered superfluous by technology. So we should consider whether we could avoid the challenges of creating or strengthening civic organizations by issuing an open call to “crowdsource” civic renewal. In past eras of reform, organizations were certainly essential. The League of Women Voters was founded by women’s suffragists in 1920, on the eve of their winning the right to vote, as a durable mechanism for improving the quality of American democracy. In the same era, the great reform senator Robert M. La Follette tried to spark civic renewal with the People’s Legislative Service, the Progressive Party, and the NAACP, all groups that he founded or played a role in starting. Almost 50 years later, Ralph Nader launched Public Citizen and John Gardner founded Common Cause with similar methods and motivations. In each of these cases, leaders recruited members to contribute dues that paid for professional staff and overhead.

But in January 2010, a documentary filmmaker and political theorist named Annabel Park simply wrote a short manifesto on her Facebook page against the Tea Party, the conservative grassroots movement that had sprung up soon before. She defined her opposition not to conservatism but to divisiveness and negativity. Many thousands of people joined her on Facebook and began to form the alternative network that she recommended, called the Coffee Party. In less than a month, Park also had a video on YouTube that called for a movement, and within weeks, more than 400 face-to-face meetings of the Coffee Party had been held. By voting online, members of the free and open movement chose financial reform and campaign finance reform as their priorities and began to lobby Congress.

At first national meeting of the Coffee Party, in Louisville, KY, the legal scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig electrified the audience with a proposal to “crowdsource” campaign finance reform. In contrast (although not in opposition) to the traditional campaign finance reform organizations, such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, Lessig had created a loose, online network called Fix Congress First to lobby for reform. Visitors to his website were asked to organize local house parties, “spread the word,” pledge not to contribute financially to any federal candidates who refused to back reform, and contact Members of Congress. Because of a combination of its goal (nonpartisan political reform) and its format (loose, voluntary, and viral) Fix Congress First was a perfect match for the Coffee Party.

It would be risky to make any predictions about these developments so early in their history. I certainly hope they succeed and believe that they will contribute to the goals I care about. Yet I doubt it is fully possible to crowdsource civic renewal. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor who has deep understanding of democratic theory and civic themes, has been experimenting with crowdsourced journalism projects: efforts to generate valuable news and information by issuing open calls to volunteers. He has observed three preconditions for success. First, in a crowdsourced project, because people no longer sit together to discuss assignments, you need “extreme clarity about tasks and goals.” Lawrence Lessig, for example, asks volunteers to call specific members of Congress to ask them to support particular legislation. Rosen has had equal success posting lists of people who need to be interviewed and asking volunteers to conduct the interviews and post their notes online. But asking people to construct a whole news article, design legislation, or govern a local asset would require too much discussion and deliberation to succeed by crowdsourcing.

Second, an open call for assistance must go to a pre-existing group with a “shared background narrative.” In Rosen’s example, participants in the liberal blog Talking Points Memo were able to collaborate online on very short notice to scan a ream of leaked Justice Department documents to find embarrassing evidence about the Attorney General. They were successful because they already agreed on that goal, its importance, and what would count as relevant evidence. Most of the prominent examples of successful crowdsourcing come from domains such as software design, in which the goals are fairly self-evident. But politics is laden with values and is profoundly contentious, so that virtually no two people have exactly the same political objectives and beliefs. If their relevant values and ideas differ, they need to talk before they collaborate. They can certainly talk online instead of face-to-face, but their conversation needs structure and moderation. They can only crowdsource a problem once it has become a discrete element of some larger political project that they already share.

Finally, the example of Talking Points Memo points to a condition that is somewhat less explicit in Rosen’s presentation. The people who receive an open call must know and trust the person who sent it. As Rosen says, “If people have been following you, then you can enlist them.” For example, when the British newspaper The Guardian asked its readers to examine former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s financial documents to determine the sources of his income, they did so because they had expertise to contribute, they had received a clear request, they disliked Blair, and they trusted The Guardian. If I issued a call to help with some aspect of civic renewal, my friends might help. But my friends are not very numerous, and other people would have no reason to trust me or even to notice my call. The examples of successful “viral” messages, like Annabel Park’s manifesto for the Coffee Party, are vastly outnumbered by messages that no one reads but our own narrow circle of friends.

For civic renewal, these requirements create serious challenges. We do not have many people or organizations that are capable of issuing calls for help to large numbers of loyal followers. The hep they need is subtle and complex: developing ideas for legislation rather than simply calling members of Congress to vote for it. And even within the nascent civic renewal movement, differences of values, priorities, and tactics are profound, so participants would (understandably) want to debate before they acted. If the Coffee Party can morph into an organization, I will be excited. It has not shown that organizations are superfluous.

In short, I think crowdsourcing techniques will be valuable once we have moved to the point where we agree that we need information, money, or people to contact government or boycott particular industries. Those do not seem our most pressing needs at this point, except in areas like campaign finance reform where appropriate legislation is already before Congress. (But note that even a large number of phone calls will probably not get such legislation passed against the interests of major industries and incumbent politicians.)