Unwittingly funny GOP social media experiment failed by being generic

A recent US Republican Party social media experiment misfired not because of poor moderation, as some critics have assumed, but because site managers failed to recruit and motivate the right community. This post explores ways to create an open, uncensored forum that can more constructively represent both loyal followers and potential converts who were (presumably) the intended targets of the site.

Saying they want to “give the American people a megaphone to speak out,” last week GOP Congressional leaders announced a new web site, AmericaSpeakingOut.com, an open “town meeting” where everyone has an “[o]pportunity to change the way Congress works by proposing ideas for a new policy agenda.”

Despite an enthusiastic introduction by GOP leaders, wackiness ensued. Notable submissions on the site included unlikely suggestions, like:

  • “end child labor laws” (economic development);
  • “build a castle-style wall along the border, there is plenty of stone laying around about there” (immigration);
  • “employ some of those invincible black knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (national security); and,
  • “repeal all the amendments to the Constitution” (legislative reform).

In one respect AmericaSpeakingOut.com is a masterpiece: arguably, at least, it demonstrates that the GOP is openly listening to everyone, including critics, satirists, and fringe viewpoints (assuming that at least some of the wacky-sounding comments are actual viewpoints, not simply attempts to bait the GOP).

But the net effect, evidenced both by the media reaction and comments from readers (as well as my own non-scientific sampling on the site), is that the majority of site contributors are merely mocking the GOP. Some would argue that this is a good thing because the GOP deserves ridicule. However, it seems unlikely that those who created and put their weight behind the site intended this result. And personally I feel the body politic lost an opportunity for constructive discourse.

For examples of negative press coverage see The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and Politico.

Between various critiques I’ve examined, the most common criticism is that the GOP failed to moderate the site. Unlikely. A simple lack of moderation would have rendered the site a playground for spam advertisers and foul language — which isn’t its problem.

Instead, we should ask why, despite ample moderation, the community that formed around the site failed to support the GOP’s stated goal of becoming a brainstorming session sponsored by the Republican party.

I’m guessing the answer is the site’s managers failed to establish a sustainable and productive community for the site before releasing it to the general public. Instead the tone for the community was set by early waves of curious people who visited the site – many of whom sought to mock the GOP and the political status quo. Once a tone of satire and hyperbole set in, the die was cast, and subsequent visitors quickly found themselves wondering if any of the posts were intended to be constructive — grounding the site securely in the realm of the ridiculous.

Under these circumstances more “moderation,” in the sense that moderators could have censored every submission they found unappealing, is impractical. It’s a little like sending gardeners into an untouched forest and telling them to cut down everything they find that’s wouldn’t be found in an idealized flower bed. It can also lead to damaging backlash from frustrated would-be contributors spilling over into popular web sites not under the GOP’s control.

Theirs was a failure to identify their customer and to target their customer’s needs via the forum. A generic online community concept, like any generic marketing campaign, suffers from limited appeal.

What could site managers have done differently?

1. Back to the gardening analogy: the most practical approach towards setting a tone for the site would have been to seed a freshly prepared site with the sort of content and community members they wanted to see there. To accomplish this they could have released the site in “beta” to a loyalist community who would have pre-populated the site with submissions and comments containing the right tone. And from among participants in this community, both selected and self-appointed community defenders would have emerged to help paid moderators keep the general tone more or less on-message. They would both supply fresh content and police others’ comments, for example by criticizing (or in extreme cases, deleting) crackpot or satirical posts. Once it opened to the general public, at minimum satirical posts would be called-out by community defenders, signaling both established members and visitors that satire wasn’t the de facto character of the site.

Of course, this would have prevented the site from becoming a true “state of nature” representation of the interests of the US voting public, which in one sense would be a shame. And among other side effects, a partisan community will usually discourage or even shout down viewpoints not already popular in that community, which can lead to an echo-chamber of pure doctrine. But while I commend the GOP for apparently attempting to provide perfect openness, the chances of it working were exactly zero. Trolls are a fact of life on the internet. Tilling fresh soil and inviting all comers is basically an invitation for opportunistic plants to co-opt the new ecosystem, and snarky satirical “weeds” can quickly become the dominant crop.

2. Going a degree further, the GOP could have solicited short posts from celebrity GOP members (politicians, bloggers, TV personalities) whose fans would have flocked to the site to support their favorites and assist with policing while generating fresh submissions in a similar vein.

3. An additional step — which would have had the undesirable side-effect of discouraging some number of participants — would have been to require everyone to publicly identify themselves, their party affiliation, and other data that would have discouraged satire by holding people accountable for the words.

4. An ambitious alternative approach — one which I’ve never heard of anyone trying before — would have been to have a contributor “lottery” of sorts, choosing a random sample of the voting public, then offering them the opportunity to have their views featured on this high-profile site in exchange for attributing their real names, localities, and possibly other demographic information to ensure a degree of honesty and accountability. Ideally this would have given the GOP the quality of honest input they were looking for, although it might or might not have generated ideas and discussions useful for their platform-building process, and might or might not have given rise to a community passionate enough to be self-sustaining.

In conclusion: AmericaSpeakingOut.com works as mold-breaking outreach by the GOP because it appears to be free, open, and civil, basically uncensored in a political dimension, but it fails in a platform-building dimension because the sincerity of participants is questionable, the true composition of the relatively small community participating in the site is a complete mystery, and the fit of most suggestions to any potential GOP platform is poor. Realistically, to serve the potential GOP voter some effort should have been made to welcome that specific community by rewarding that community, rather than simply throwing open the doors to a broad, unfocused community of opportunists.

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