Obama’s Internet Adventure: What’s This Transparent Government Gonna Look Like, Anyway?

Mr. Lessig, along with Mr. Sifry and other Silicon Valley icons including Tim O’Reilly, signed a proposal for “open transition principles” to guide Mr. Obama’s new-media team. Change.gov’s policy section was removed without notice just days after the site went live. It later returned with watered-down language, and bashes on the Bush administration for being “one of the most secretive, closed administrations in American history” had disappeared. On his blog, Mr. O’Reilly recommended that change.gov use “revision control,” a kind of online notification system, so the public will to be able to see when government documents and policies are changed.

Mr. Lessig suggested to The Observer that MixedInk.com would be a useful tool to do just that. MixedInk is a free, collaborative online writing tool that’s a cross between a wiki and Digg.com. Anybody can add or revise a document, but changes get ranked by the community, and the ones with the most votes get filtered to the top. “It’s a collaborative environment where people can begin to work out what a solution is, and that becomes a compelling part of what this participation could be,” Mr. Lessig said.

Has your head exploded yet? We warned you: revenge of the nerds.

Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org, who stumped for Mr. Obama during the campaign, suggested that there could be a “Craigslist for service” on the site. “A lot of people have lots of time and energy, a lot of people have no time but a few extra dollars,” Mr. Newmark said by phone from San Francisco last week. He said Mr. Obama’s Web site could help people find a way to serve in their local communities—whether it’s job postings for teachers and volunteer firefighters—or just link to outside sites where people can donate a little cash on donorschoose.org or kiva.org, which allows lenders to give money to entrepreneurs in developing countries.

“There’s another big kind of service that I think is important, and that’s getting involved in grass-roots politics. That may mean going to the PTA, it may mean going to city council meetings, it may just mean getting started out in an area like green technology or health care or Internet technology and getting involved. All of these things are really important.”

Charlie O’Donnell, an entrepreneur in New York and CEO of Path101, had a similar idea. On his blog, titled This Is Going to Be Big, he suggested that the White House’s site become an online hub for community organizing by integrating applications from sites like Meetup.com, which helps organizers create community; GetSatisfaction.com, a site where users can complain to real company employees and other customers and answer questions about services; and Outside.in, a network of localized news sites written by community members.

Nancy Scola, Mr. Sifry’s colleague, as associate editor at techPresident.com, said Whitehouse.gov should have some kind of trickle-down effect for the rest of the government. “The White House isn’t Obama’s only domain,” she said. “He has agencies, a lot of smart people, that can integrate these Web policies between the entire executive branch, which he can get done from the get-go by making them mandatory.”

Ms. Scola added that Mr. Obama will have to get more than the tech-minded and the young to log on. Sure, the post-college somethings will sign on to a Facebook-like whitehouse.gov, but what about grandma and grandpa? Ms. Scola said Mr. Obama can do that by making good on his promises to upgrade broadband connections to the Internet in communities across the country and use modern technology and social networking tools to facilitate offline meetings. But how will the old folks know about these offline meetings if they don’t know how to get online in the first place? Should he create a volunteer corps to help Grammie on the Internet? (Or maybe they should just stick to the landlines: Old people are already pretty powerful as the No. 1 bracket in voting demographics. Things seem to be working just fine.)

Mr. Newmark smartly noted that however exciting a prospect it is to have the White House in our houses, Mr. Obama will be under a lot more pressure to deal with issues like the economy and Iraq rather than bringing the government into the digital age.

Mr. Lessig was also pragmatic. “The problem is that the DNA of Washington and the DNA of the White House completely contradicts this idea” of a Web-fueled democracy, Mr. Lessig said. “They want to manage and control message and agenda and access to certain kinds of information. And so, that’s why a lot of people are skeptical that this can be achieved. But in this moment of good faith people believe that what is going on is people are trying to get it right.”

Mr. Sifry of techPresident.com seems hopeful. “It would be some kind of top-down stupidity to say, we’re not going to let people connect, we’re not going to allow people to comment anymore,” he said. “But it’s a double-edged sword because they’re connecting to each other and commenting and if the administration falls short, they’re supercharging the super volunteers who can really make change and influence people.

“The government actually needs people pushing and catching them,” he added.

In his recent interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, Mr. Obama seemed to agree: “I, you know, one of the things that I’m going to have to work through is how to break through the isolation—the bubble that exists around the president,” he said. “I’m negotiating to figure out how can I get information from outside of the 10 or 12 people who surround my office in the White House. Because, one of the worst things I think that could happen to a president is losing touch with what people are going through day to day.” He can certainly do that with something like Facebook for his home page.

greagan@observer.com