What I’ve learned so far from #socialcivics

A few weeks ago, I wrote to announce that I had accepted the position of White House Chief Digital Officer. I asked for you to share your thoughts on how we can better connect online to make America better. I just finished my first week, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all the incredible feedback I’ve received so far. I wanted to share how all these great ideas from you are shaping my thinking.

Asking for Help Works

As I was meeting coworkers for the first time on Monday, one of the things that I found myself repeatedly mentioning was the quality of the ideas discussed on #socialcivics. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I asked for feedback, but I didn’t anticipate that the overwhelming majority of the comments would be so actionable and directly relevant to improving online citizen participation.

As a result, the most important thing I’ve learned so far is this: Be willing to ask for help. One thing Ev always said at Twitter was that there will always be more smart, helpful people outside the building than there are inside. This rings true to me in a whole new way now.

On this point, Ananda Lee’s post goes a step further by pointing out that there are already communities and organizations who have acted when called upon and would be willing to again. Not only can they help with new perspective, but they can also set a standard for how conversation works and elevate the level of discourse. Dr. Janet Johnson makes this point in her post on the need for a respect of differences. And it’s really up to the people currently participating in the conversation now to model behavior for those who have yet to join it.

Rethink the Form

A second big takeaway from #socialcivics: Old platforms can be used in new ways, and we can learn how to approach new platforms by examining what’s worked. Luke Fretwell’s post has a number of solid suggestions along these lines, and I like his framing of the need for a call to action so that people aren’t “being press released without context to learning more or getting involved.”

Another idea in that post is doing more with whitehouse.gov and “coupling it with a fresh platform for engagement.” This brings to mind the thoughftul advice Tim O’Reilly shared in his post on the architecture of engagement. He has a tremendously useful concept around content sizing and I feel there is a lot to learn from this advice from him: “As you rethink civic participation, think about standardized parts and the unit size for participation.”

Finally, there is a call from Micah, Alex and others to rethink and reinvest in the petitions platform — We the People. One of the projects I was able to support in my first week was the White House response to a petition calling for a ban on conversion therapy. So I’ve already seen the potential of this platform as a means of direct engagement. And I appreciate folks advocating that we improve our response time and think through how it can be used to drive more conversations.

Think About Audience

One of the ways we move away from treating social channels as a bullhorn and instead as a place for conversation is to ask a simple question: “Who is the audience and how do we want them to feel engaged?”

A risk many folks pointed out is viewing the audience for engagement in a homogeneous way. I’ve definitely seen this working in the tech industry when — despite having 100M+ user goals — companies end up talking about the same groups of people as potential users.

Patricia Patton made this argument in her post, writing:

We black boomer bloggers were among the first to go to college in our families, to study and live abroad and to speak another language other than English … Yet we are often not included as early adapters. In the rapid changes now occurring I am hoping that you will not forget us as solutions to disruptive aging and maturity are reimagined or as we create solutions using information and technology to improve healthcare.

Jessamyn West made a related but separate point about assumptions of connectivity in a response to my original Medium piece. As she said:

I’m in rural Vermont and part of the answer is getting people online in the first place …People without “engagement” skills and with mistrust of the online world have a hard time with this. Building trust is a large part of what I do in rural tech.

Bianca St. Louis made a very similar point, and it is well taken.

Hearing this feedback from so many perspectives is a great challenge and opportunity.

Keep it coming!

As I said above, learning to include an ask has been a key takeaway. So here’s my ask in this post: I want your help in keeping the #socialcivics going. To that end, I’m going to be using my new, official Twitter account @goldman44 and would love to hear more from you there.

Thanks so much for all the help and advice as I’ve gotten started.

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