The Personal Democracy Forum is a annual gathering of (this year in New York) more than a thousand bloggers, online activists, Internet advocates, and digital journalists. It's also a movement, writes Matt Leighninger, author of The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule Is Giving Way to Shared Governance -- and Why Politics Will Never Be the Same. The Internet, in his words, has irrevocably changed the way "candidates raise money, recruit volunteers, and reach voters," and "the ways in which people meet their neighbors, talk about public problems and opportunities, organize activities, and interact with local officials."
"Online technology," Leigninger writes, "can bring the political system closer to the people, can dramatically enlarge the number and diversity of people who participate in public life, and can help them participate in much more intensive and productive ways."
Andrew Rasiej, founder of PDF, says the organization's mission is to "reinvent democracy for the 21st century." It started in 2004. Back then, "people didn't understand what personal democracy meant," Rasiej told ABC News. "By 2008, with the pervasiveness of the Web with platforms like Facebook and MySpace and YouTube, it's obvious that you can be involved in political life in a meaningful way by using the Internet to inform yourself, to share your opinion and more importantly, to organize with others to change results."
At PDF online, you can sign up, and through an online community, "meet the people who are making that change happen, discover the tools powering the new civic conversation, spot the early trends, and share in understanding and embracing this dynamic new force."
Though I have not yet attended a meeting of PDF, I've been intrigued and involved in electronic democracy efforts since the mid-1990s. To me, the next step in creating a new democracy online is to build online structures that mirror real-life civic and political structures, but in ways that are flexible, fluid, intuitive and understandable enough to encourage participation AND accountability.
- every NEIGHBORHOOD with an online forum or email list, a Facebook directory, and neighborhood-based bloggers.
- civic and party activists and precinct workers who electronically identify their allies in each neighborhood, meet face-to-face, listen to each other, discuss and debate and mobilize on local , statewide and national issues, are aware of who in the neighborhood needs a nudge to vote in primary and general elections. These cyber-precinct workers or ward-healers are tied into online databases like the Voter Activation Network (VAN), and work together on letter-writing campaigns, get out the vote efforts, and other forums of civic activism and engagement. Alliances are fluid: two people who may be in the same political party and who work together on a national political campaign may take opposite positions on local issues, and vice versa. Two people who may take diametrically opposed positions on national political issues may agree passionately on local issues. That is the essence of democracy and why civility and mutual respect must rule.
- these neighborhood-based online groups tie into city and county-wide online communities, which in turn tie into statewide multi-user blogs that are managed by journalists and seek to be a fair representation of opinion in the state.
- the city and county-wide online communities in turn link to, tie in to and have representatives of a plethora of national political campaigns and civic organizations and networks, so that a citizen can enter the online democracy at any point in the loose-knit structure and begin to engage on the local, statewide or national level.
- Inevitably, citizens will find that their voice is heard most easily at the most local level. Online as well as off, government and civic entities are most likely to be most responsive on the local level.
Building electronic democracy is about civic engagement. It is not a partisan exercise, though the political parties and advocacy groups that best build and utilize online networks and structures and PARTICIPATE will probably have the most success off line, in the real world.