Public Agenda
Commentary

Twitter & The Freedom Trail: Citizen Networks For High-Octane Democracy

Francie Grace

Social media - Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, foursquare and more - is changing the world in ways previously never even imagined. For Public Agenda, it's a great tool for constructive dialogue on contentious public policy issues, as Francie Grace, vice president, managing editor and director of social media for Public Agenda, explains in this speech delivered at the #140 Characters Conference in Boston.

It's awesome to be here at John Hancock Hall.

I'm a journalist, from Public Agenda, where strengthening democracy is the mission. It's a big job, and worth doing. Our tools include public opinion research, public engagement, and social networks which give citizens a direct voice: that's right, direct voice, no political party allegiances suggested or required.

We hope that after you've hear what we're doing, you'll join the discussion. And you might want to start some citizen networks of your own.

The folks in our networks are hashing out a long list of issues: climate change, immigration reform, education and higher education, the economy, and a lot more. On Twitter, you'll find us at @PublicAgenda, @TheEnergyBook, @FiscalFuture and @FacingUp. Like most of you here in this hall, we're also on the web, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr.

Here's what makes Public Agenda different from most of what's out there: we're really, truly nonpartisan. That's not, by the way, the opposite of being an active citizen. Our followers and fans are very active. They're not afraid, and we're not afraid, to get right out there with the hard facts.

That could lead to typical partisan finger-pointing. But it can also mean reaching across party lines to listen to other points of view and build practical solutions to the problems this country faces. Now that's pretty radical: talking to the other side.

The stuff that's going on in journalism and the printed word right now is also pretty radical. I'm sure that in the future, all news, TV, movies, books and everything else [even Mark Twain's new book] will be in a YouTube-type format. Everyone will be commenting and interacting with each other in real-time as they experience words, images and other content.

But before I say any more about participation, democracy, and nonpartisan citizen networks, I'd like to say how very cool it is to be here on the stage in Boston, home of the biggest signature on the Declaration of Independence.

Clashing Loyalties, Common Ground

No one knows the partisan spirit better than Boston, a local check-in for Scott Brown, the Kennedys, and the Red Sox, who can teach us a lot about bitter rivalries.

The Yankees know a lot about that too. It's a little scary to stand here in the midst of Red Sox nation and say: I'm from New York. And I do like the Yankees. That didn't stop me from visiting Fenway yesterday and I've got to admit: it's beautiful.

How many Red Sox fans here today? How about Yankee fans?

Okay, I see I don't have a lot of company. The truth is: I love New York, but I was born in Boston. And steps away from the Freedom Trail seems like a good place to think about strong feelings and partisan pursuits.

There's no love lost between the Red Sox and the Yankees - numerous incidents, some awful, some comical, have made that clear. You wouldn't think they could agree on anything.

But they do agree - on quite a lot. What happens at the end of every season? The team bosses size up each other's players, using the same yardstick of excellence, bidding up the prices for the guys they both know are the best.

So it is possible to hang onto the most passionate of loyalties, and at the very same time, have a firm, clear-headed grasp on the objective facts.

This is something we need to keep in mind in politics. We are divided into teams - Democrats, Republicans, Independents and more - and we might dislike each other quite a lot. But that doesn't mean we can't check our hatreds at the door, find some things we do agree on, and work together.

That's a big part of what Public Agenda is all about: nonpartisan problem-solving by citizens who really care about the kind of world we're living in, and the kind of nation we want to be.

Electing representatives and just hoping they somehow do good things: isn't that an antique way of thinking about democracy? Especially with web sites and social networks, there's no reason why citizens can't know more about the issues and get directly involved.

Public Engagement: Setting The Stage For Progress

Political parties have leapt onto Twitter - most of you probably saw the study on that last week. Most, however, are coloring only within their own party lines.

We'll never solve this nation's serious problems by talking only to folks who think exactly like we do. But we might get something done by sitting down with our opposites, respecting each other, and trading some things we like... for stuff we need or like even more. Would it really be so bad if both sides won?

"Which Side Are You On?" More than a question, that's also the title of one of folk music's most powerful songs, written nearly 80 years ago by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer in the Kentucky coal mines.

Which side are you on? It's fine to know what side you're on. And with time and age, you may find your beliefs evolving in surprising ways. Arlo Guthrie, who won early fame for Woodstock and opposition to the Vietnam War, today plays with the Boston Pops. He says there are only two sides now: the people who care, and those who really don't.

No matter what side you're on, it's not fine to think that yours is the only side that should make all the decisions. That's not what democracy is all about.

And if you're really interested in getting your way, consider this: bitter partisanship isn't the best way to persuade people to support your ideas.

Many years ago, when I was very, very short, some kids on the playground demanded to know who I was backing for president. I was only six, so the truth was: I had no idea, but asked to choose, I did.

My answer got me beat up - badly - and shoved under the merry-go-round. Not a nice place to be.

This bloody experience did not make me want to learn more about the candidate favored by the kids who put me there.

Today, I'm still not afraid to choose, and my political opinions are based on facts, not playground bullies. But here's a good question: with the serious problems this country has right now, is partisan name-calling the best way to get us across the finish line with some real solutions?

Do we really think that politicians, humiliated by critics and opponents, will ever be in the mood to compromise?

Nonpartisan discussion, on the other hand, and especially by ordinary citizens, can produce progress. So that's what we're doing at Public Agenda: providing opportunities for dialogue, looking at the pros and cons of various proposals so that you can decide what side you're on, and what kind of world you want to create.

Social Media: New Opportunities For Dialogue

Each of our websites and social networks has a slightly different focus, and the great thing is, every person who logs on - every person in this room - sees the world with slightly different eyes. Shouldn't your voice be part of the discussion on immigration, education, foreign policy and health care? You can talk about those issues and others on our web site, on Twitter and on Facebook.

And how about Swamp Thing: the 1950s horror movie-size national debt? Shouldn't your voice be part of the process as elected officials decide what to cut, who and what to tax, and how much to spend, on what?

The deficit commission makes its recommendations in December; we recommend you log onto Our Fiscal Future, learn about your choices, and take a stand.

And shouldn't you be part of the decision-making as our nation figures out what to do about climate change, which fuels to use, and how to pay for it all? You'll find that debate underway at Who Turned Out The Lights and on Twitter at @TheEnergyBook.

Journalists have an important role to play here: democracy depends on objective discovery of the facts. The change is painful, but there's opportunity, too. Journalism is transforming into a format with very strong participation from the people who used to be just the audience. This new, louder chase for news, truth and opinion doesn't have to be a partisan affair.

Political parties are important. But they should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. John Adams once said:

"In politics, the middle way is none at all."
But when dealing with really serious problems, none at all isn't always an option. If Adams' words were a tweet, I might tweet back with this quote, from Ben Franklin:
"We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Widespread participation is what makes our democracy hang together. So make sure that you are part of it, and all sides are invited.


Comments

Comment on this article.

Subject:
Your Name (Optional):

Your Comment:



Help us prevent bot attacks.
Please enter the characters displayed above (case-sensitive).


Press to submit.