Budapest Parlament2

Like this, but on Facebook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the PEP-NET summit in Hamburg a little while ago, I met Gabor Mihucz, a Hungarian democracy activist, who pointed me at his organisation the Association for Societal Participation¬†and their new project “webvotr“.

Webvotr is still in concept form at the moment, but is intended as a Facebook app for democracy. The organisers say:

We have decided to create an application specially built for the social networks which would take the importance of spontaneous organizations to a higher level by honoring the demand of voters for a greater say in the policy-shaping process and which would maximize the force of public pressure exerted on politicians while also prompting people to participate in public matters who have lost all faith in common representation built upon a consensus. It is our hope that this application will again allow a meaningful dialog between voters and representatives.

It’s obviously very early days for the project at the moment, but you can get a rough idea of how it works from the “Application” page on the site.

I think the motivation behind the app is good – I think the challenge for Gabor and his team is to build something which promotes democratic discussion and can’t be gamed. It will need rapidly to create a network of users, with a positive culture. These are areas where political discussion on the Internet has generally failed.

As I say, I like the intent of the application. I think it makes sense on one level to build it on top of Facebook (but there are compromises inherent in that approach as well).

I like that the intention is to create an evidence base around proposals being discussed – it might not always be used, but it’s important to have it there.

I think they are on the right lines in describing an open networked system: “Depending on their political affiliations users can join groups or factions, they can create their own Facebook profile and forums, they can organize sessions, events and protests, which can be posted on Webvotr.”

I like their idea of having an iFrame that allows the app content to be viewed on other websites (though I’m not techy enough to understand how that works alongside Facebook).

There are also a few areas where I think the project might be taking a risk.

First, Webvotr plans to create a separate group for each administrative unit, which seems to go against the natural networks model that I mentioned above. Local groups might work, particularly if they are linked to offline activity, but there’s a risk of Empty Restaurant syndrome – where a low-traffic group doesn’t attract traffic because people don’t see anyone interacting there. This was one of the problems with the BBC’s iCan project about ten years ago. They had a sub site for pretty much every parish in the UK, but even the marketing reach and trust of the BBC couldn’t draw people in.

Second, and more fundamentally, I wonder whether Europe is ready as a society for online-first political engagement. As I said above, I don’t think that there are many success stories in online political discussion (as opposed to online political campaigning). There seems to be a scaling problem, or a trade-off between size and culture, where small focused groups or groups that are “on the same side” can create positive cultures, but larger participation reduces the quality of the interactions.

Perhaps we’re getting closer to that time, we’re certainly closer than a few years ago, but I wonder how Webvotr answers the inevitable challenge to its representativeness – how can it represent those offline, and how can it avoid just giving a stronger voice to those who (through education, wealth or position) already have a strong voice?

None of this should take away from the idea, however. It’s good to have people like Gabor working on initiatives such as this – particularly in Hungary, where there are some clear and present threats to democratic process. I think Webvotr has the right fundamental philosophy – support people to talk and involve themselves in their areas – and I wish it a great deal of success.

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Written by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.