Tag Archives: social media

Canada's Secret Open Data Strategy?

Be prepared for the most boring sentence to an intriguing blog post.

The other night, I was, as one is wont to do, reading through a random Organization for Economic Coordination and Development report entitled Towards Recovery and Partnership with Citizens: The Call for Innovative and Open Government. The report was, in fact, a summary of its recent Ministerial Meeting of the OECD’s Public Governance Committee.

Naturally, I flipped to the section authored by Canada and, imagine the interest with which I read the following:

The Government of Canada currently makes a significant amount of open data available through various departmental websites. Fall 2010 will see the launch of a new portal to provide one-stop access to federal data sets by providing a “single-window” to government data. In addition to providing a common “front door” to government data, a searchable catalogue of available data, and one-touch data downloading, it will also encourage users to develop applications that re-use and combine government data to make it useful in new and unanticipated ways, creating new value for Canadians. Canada is also exploring the development of open data policies to regularise the publication of open data across government. The Government of Canada is also working on a strategy, with engagement and input from across the public service, developing short and longer-term strategies to fully incorporate Web 2.0 across the government.

In addition, Canada’s proactive disclosure initiatives represent an ongoing contribution to open and transparent government. These initiatives include the posting of travel and hospitality expenses, government contracts, and grants and contribution funding exceeding pre-set thresholds. Subsequent phases will involve the alignment of proactive disclosure activities with those of the Access to Information Act, which gives citizens the right to access information in federal government records.

Lots of interesting things packed into these two paragraphs, something I’m sure readers concerned with open data, open government and proactive, would agree with. So let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly, of all of this, in that order.

The Good

So naturally the first sentence is debatable. I don’t think Canada makes a significant amount of its data available at all. Indeed, across every government website there is probably no more than 400 data sets available in machine readable format. That’s less that the city of Washington DC. It’s about (less than) 1% of what Britain or the United States disclose. But, okay,let’s put that unfortunate fact aside.

The good and really interesting thing here is that the Government is stating that it was going to launch an open data portal. This means the government is thinking seriously about open data. This means – in all likelihood – policies are being written, people are being consulted (internally), processes are being thought through. This is good news.

It is equally good news that the government is developing a strategy for deploying Web 2.0 technologies across the government. I hope this will be happening quickly as I’m hearing that in many departments this is still not embraced and, quite often, is banned outright. Of course, using social media tools to talk with the public is actually the wrong focus (Since the communications groups will own it all and likely not get it right for quite a while), the real hope is being allowed to use the tools internally.

The Bad

On the open data front, the bad is that the portal has not launched. We are now definitely passed the fall of 2010 and, as for whatever reason, there is no Canadian federal open data portal. This may mean that the policy (despite being announced publicly in the above document) is in peril or that it is simply delayed. Innumerable things can delay a project like this (especially on the open data front). Hopefully whatever the problem is, it can be overcome. More importantly, let us hope the government does something sensible around licensing and uses the PDDL and not some other license.

The Ugly

Possibly the heart stopping moment in this brief comes in the last paragraph where the government talks about posting travel and hospitality expenses. While these are often posted (such as here) they are almost never published in machine readable format and so have to be scrapped in order to be organized, mashed up or compared to other departments. Worse still, these files are scattered across literally hundreds of government websites and so are virtually impossible to track down. This guy has done just that, but of course now he has the data, it is more easily navigable but no more open then before. In addition, it takes him weeks (if not months) to do it, something the government could fix rather simply.

The government should be lauded for trying to make this information public. But if this is their notion of proactive disclosure and open data, then we are in for a bumpy, ugly ride.

What Governments can Learn about Citizen Engagement from Air Canada

Yes. You read that title right.

I’m aware that airlines are not known for their customer responsiveness. Ask anyone whose been trapped on a plane on the tarmac for 14 hours. You know you’ve really dropped the ball when Congress (which agrees on almost nothing) passes a customer bill of rights explicitly for your industry.

Air Canada, however, increasingly seems to be the exception to this rule. Their recent response to online customer feedback is instructive of why this is the case. For governments interested in engaging citizens online and improving services, Air Canada is an interesting case study.

The Background

Earlier this year, with great fanfare, Air Canada announced it was changing how it managed its frequent flyer reward system. Traditional, it had given out upgrade certificates which allowed customers who’d flown a certain number of flights the air-canada-logoability to upgrade themselves into business class for free. Obviously the people who use these certificates are some of Air Canada’s more loyal customers (to get certificates you have to be flying a fair amount). The big change was that rather than simple giving customers certificates after flying a certain number of miles, customers would earn “points” which they could allocate towards flights.

This was supposed to be a good news story because a) it meant that users had greater flexibility around how they upgraded themselves and b) the whole system was digitized so that travelers wouldn’t have to carry certificates around with them (this was the most demanded feature by users).

The Challenge

In addition to the regular emails and website announcement an Air Canada representative also posted details about the new changes on a popular air traveler forum called Flyertalk.com. (Note: Here is the first great lesson – don’t expect customers or citizens to come to you… go to where they hang out, especially your most hard core stakeholders).

flyertalk_logoVery quickly these important stakeholders (customers) began running the numbers and started discovering various flaws and problems. Some noticed that the top tier customers were getting a lesser deal than ordinary customers. Others began to sniff out how the new program essentially meant their benefits were being cut. In short, the very incentives the rewards program was supposed to create were being undermined. Indeed the conversation thread extended to over 113 pages. With roughly 15 comments per page, that meant around 1500 comments about the service.

This, of course, is what happens with customers, stakeholder and citizens in a digital world. They can get together. They can analyze your service. And they will notice any flaws or changes that do not seem above board or are worse than what previously existed.

So here, on Flyertalk, Air Canada has some of its most sophisticated and important customers – the people that will talk to everyone about Air travel rewards programs, starting to revolt against its new service which was supposed to be a big improvement. This was (more than) a little bit of a crisis.

The Best Practice

First, Air Canada was smart because it didn’t argue with anyone. It didn’t have communication people trying to explain to people how they were wrong.

Instead it was patient. It appeared silent. But in reality it was doing something more important, it was listening.

Remember many of these users know the benefits program better than most Air Canada employees. And it has real impact on their decisions, so they are going to analyze it up and down.

Second, When it finally did respond, Air Canada did several things right.

It responded in Flyertalk.com – again going to where the conversation was. (It subsequently sent around an email to all its members).

It noted that it had been listening and learning from its customers.

More than just listen, Air Canada had taken its customers feedback and used it to revise its air travel rewards program.

And, most importantly, the tone it took was serious, but engaging. Look at the first few sentences:

Thanks to everyone for the comments that have been posted here the last few days, and especially those who took the time to post some very valuable, constructive feedback. While it’s not our intent to address every issue raised on this forum on the changes to the 2011 Top Tier program, some very valid points were raised which we agree should be addressed to the best of our ability. These modifications are our attempt to do just that.

Governments, this is a textbook case on how to listen to citizens. They use your services. They know how they work. The single biggest take away here is, when they complain and construct logical arguments about why a service doesn’t make sense use that feedback to revise the service and make it better. People don’t want to hear why you can’t make it better – they want you to make it better. More importantly, these types of users are the ones who know your service the best and who talk to everyone about it. They are your alpha users – leverage them!

Again, to recap. What I saw Air Canada do that was positive was:

  • Engage their stakeholders where their stakeholders hang out (e.g. not on the Air Canada website)
  • Listen to what their stakeholders had to say
  • Use that feedback to improve the service
  • Communicate with customers in a direct and frank manner

Air Canada is doing more than just getting this type of engagement right. Their twitter account posts actual useful information, not just marketing glop and spin. I’m not sure who is doing social media for them, but definitely worth watching.

There’s a lot here for organizations to learn from. Moreover, for a company that used to be a crown corp I think that should mean there is hope for your government too – even if they presently ban access to facebook, twitter or say, my blog.

Big thank you to Mike B. for pointing out this cool case study to me.

The Social Network and the real villains of the old/new economy

The other week I finally got around to watching The Social Network. It’s great fun and I recommend going out and watching it whether you’re a self-professed social media expert or don’t even have a Facebook account.

Here are some of my thoughts about the movie (don’t worry, no spoilers here).

1. Remember this is a Hollywood movie: Before (or after) you watch it, read Lawrence Lessig’s fantastic critique of the movie. This review is so soundly brilliant and devastating I’m basically willing to say, if you only have 5 minutes to read, leave my blog right now and go check it out. If you are a government employee working on innovation, copyright or the digital economy, I doubly urge you to read it. Treble that if you happen to be (or work for) the CIO of a major corporation or organization who (still) believes that social media is a passing phase and can’t see its disruptive implications.

2. It isn’t just the legal system that is broken: What struck me about the movie wasn’t just the problems with the legal system, it was how badly the venture capitalists come off even worse. Here is supposed to be a group of people who are supposed to help support and enable entrepreneurs and yet they’re directing lawyers to draft up contracts that screw some of the original founders. If the story is even remotely true it’s a damning and cautionary tale for anyone starting (or looking to expand) a company. Indeed, in the movie the whole success of Facebook and the ability of (some) of the owners to retain control over it rests on the fact that graduates of the first internet bubble who were screwed over by VCs are able to swoop in and protect this second generation of internet entrepreneurs. Of course they – played by Sean Parker (inventor of Napster) – are parodied as irresponsible and paranoid.

One thought I walked away with was: if, say as a result of the rise of cloud computing, the costs of setting up an online business continue to drop, at a certain point the benefits of VC capital will significantly erode or their value proposition will need to significantly change. More importantly, if you are looking to build a robust innovation cluster, having it built on the model that all the companies generated in it have the ultimate goal of being acquired by a large (American) multinational doesn’t seem like a route to economic development.

Interesting questions for policy makers, especially those outside Silicon Valley, who obsess about how to get venture capital money into their economies.

3. Beyond lawyers and VCs, the final thing that struck me about the movie was the lack of women doing anything interesting. I tweeted this right away and, of course, a quick Google search reveals I’m not the only one who noticed it. Indeed, Aaron Sorkin (the film’s screenwriter) wrote a response to questions regarding this issue on Emmy winner Ken Levine’s blog. What I noticed in The Social Network is there isn’t a single innovating or particularly positive female character. Indeed, in both the new and old economy worlds shown in the film, women are largely objects to be enjoyed, whether it is in the elite house parties of Harvard or the makeshift start-up home offices in Palo Alto. Yes, I’m sure the situation is more complicated, but essentially women aren’t thinkers – or drivers – in the movie. It’s a type of sexism that is real, and in case you think it isn’t just consider a TechCrunch article from the summer titled “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men” in which the author, Michael Arrington, makes the gobsmacking statement:

The problem isn’t that Silicon Valley is keeping women down, or not doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs. The opposite is true. No, the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.

Really? This is a country (the United States) where women start businesses at twice the rate of men and where 42% of all businesses are women owned? To say that women don’t want to be entrepreneurs is so profoundly stupid and incorrect it perfectly reflects the roles women are shoveled into in The Social Network. And that is something the new economy needs to grapple with.

The Web and the End of Forgetting: the upside of down

A reader recently pointed me to a fantastic article in the New York Times entitled The Web and the End of Forgetting which talks about the downside of a world where one’s history is permanently recorded on the web. It paints of the dangers of a world where one can never escape one’s past – where mistakes from college rear their head in interviews and where bad choices constrain the ability to start anew.

It is, frankly, a terrifying view of the world.

I also think it is both overblown and, imagines a world where the technology changes, but our social condition does not. Indeed, the reader sent me the piece because it reminded him of a talk and subsequent blog post I wrote exactly a year ago on the same topic.

But let’s take the worse case scenario at face value. While the ability to start anew is important, at times I look forward to a world where there is a little more history. A world where choices and arguments can be traced. A world of personal accountability.

Broadcast media fostered a world where one could argue one position and then, a few months later, take the exact opposite stand. Without easily accessible indexes and archives discerning these patterns was difficult, if not impossible. With digitization, that has all changed.

The Daily Show remains the archetype example of this. The entire show is predicated on having a rich archival history of all the major network and cable news broadcasts and having the capacity, on a nightly basis, to put the raw hypocrisy of pundits and politicians on display.

The danger of course, is if this is brought to the personal level. The NYT article identifies and focuses on them. But what of the upsides? In a world where reputation matters, people may become more thoughtful. It will be interesting to witness a world where grandparents have to explain to their grandchildren why they were climate change deniers on their Facebook page. Or why you did, or didn’t join a given political campaign, or protest against a certain cause.

Ultimately, I think all this remembering leads to a more forgiving society, at least in personal and familial relationships, but the world of pundits and bloggers and politicans may become tougher. Those who found themselves very much on the wrong side of history, may have a hard time living it down. The next version of the daily show may await us all. But not saying anything may not be a safe strategy either. Those who have no history, who never said anything at anytime, may not be seen relevant, or worse, could be seen as having no convictions or beliefs.

I loved the New York Times article, but it looked at society as a place where social values will remain unchanged, where we won’t adapt to our technology and place greater emphasis on new values. I can imagine a world where our children may say – how did you have friends with so little personal history? It may not be our ideal world, but then, our grandparents world wasn’t one I would have wanted to live in either.

How to Engage with Social Media: An Example

The other week I wrote a blog post titled Canadian Governments: How to Waste millions online ($30M and Counting) in which I argued that OpenID should be the cornerstone of the government’s online identification system. The post generated a lot of online discussion, much of which was of very high quality and deeply thoughtful. On occasion, comments can enhance and even exceed a post’s initial value, and I’d argue this is one of these cases – something that is always a joy when it happens.

There was however, one comment that struck me as particularly important, not only because it was thoughtful, but because the type of comment is so rare. This is because it came from a government official. In this case, from Dave Nikolejsin, the CIO of the Government of British Columbia.

Everything about Mr. Nikolejsin’s comment deserves to be studied and understood by those in the public and private sector seeking to understand how to engage the public online. His comment is a perfect case of how and why governments should allow public servants to comment on blogs that tackle issues they are themselves addressing.

What makes Mr. Nikolejsin’s comment (which I’ve reprinted below) so effective? Let me break out the key components:

  1. It’s curious: Given the nature of my blog post a respondent could easily have gone on the offensive and merely countered claims they disagreed with. Instead Mr Nikolejsin remains open and curious about the ideas in the post and its claims. This makes readers and other commentators less likely to attack and more likely to engage and seek to understand.
  2. It seeks to return to first principles: The comment is effective because it is concise and it tackles the specific issues raised by the post. But part of what really makes it shine is how it seeks to identify first principles by talking about different approaches to online ID’s. Rather than ending up arguing about solutions, the post engages readers to identify what assumptions they may or may not have in common with one another. This won’t necessarily makes people more likely to agree, but they’ll end up debating the right thing (goals, assumptions) rather than the wrong thing (specific solutions).
  3. It links to further readings: Rather than try to explain everything in his response, the comment instead links to relevant work. This keeps the comment shorter and more readable, while also providing those who care about this issue (like me) with resources to learn more.
  4. It solicits feedback: “I really encourage you to take a look at the education link and tell me what you think.Frequently comments simply retort points in the original post they disagree with. This can reinforce the sense that the two parties are in opposition. Mr. Nikolejsin and I actually agree far more than we disagree: we both want a secure, cost effective, and user friendly online ID management system for government. By asking for feedback he implicitly recognizes this and is asking me to be a partner, not an antagonist.
  5. It is light: One thing about the web is that it is deeply human. Overly formal statements looks canned and cause people to tune out. This comment is intelligent and serious with its content, but remains light and human in its style. I get the sense a human wrote this, not a communications department. People like engaging with humans. They don’t like engaging with communication departments.
  6. Community Feedback: The comment has already sparked a number of responses which contain supportive thoughts, suggestions and questions, including some by those working in municipalities, as experts in the field and citizen users. It’s actually a pretty decent group of people there – the kind a government would want to engage.

In short, this is a comment that sought to engage. And I can tell you, it has been deeply, deeply successful. I know that some of what I wrote might have been difficult to read but after reading Mr. Nikolejsin’s comments, I’m much more likely to bend over backwards to help him out. Isn’t this what any government would want of its citizens?

Now, am I suggesting that governments should respond to every blog post out there? Definitely not. But there were a number of good comments on this post and the readership in terms of who was showing up makes commenting on a post likely worthwhile.

I’ve a number of thoughts on the comment that I hope to post shortly. But first, I wanted to repost the comment, which you can also read in the original post’s thread here.

Dave Nikolejsin <dave.nikolejsin@gov.bc.ca> (unregistered) wrote: Thanks for this post David – I think it’s excellent that this debate is happening, but I do need to set the record straight on what we here in BC are doing (and not doing).

First and foremost, you certainly got my attention with the title of your post! I was reading with interest to see who in Canada was wasting $30M – imagine my surprise when I saw it was me! Since I know that we’ve only spent about 1% of that so far I asked Ian what exactly it was he presented at the MISA conference you mentioned (Ian works for me). While we would certainly like someone to give us $30M, we are not sure where you got the idea we currently have such plans.

That said I would like to tell you what we are up to and really encourage the debate that your post started. I personally think that figuring out how we will get some sort of Identity layer on the Internet is one of the most important (and vexing) issues of our day. First, just to be clear, we have absolutely nothing against OpenID. I think it has a place in the solution set we need, but as others have noted we do have some issues using foreign authentication services to access government services here in BC simply because we have legislation against any personal info related to gov services crossing the border. I do like Jeff’s thinking about whom in Canada can/will issue OpenID’s here. It is worth thinking about a key difference we see emerging between us and the USA. In Canada it seems that Government’s will issue on line identity claims just like we issue the paper/plastic documents we all use to prove our Identities (driver’s licenses, birth certificates, passports, SIN’s, etc.). In the USA it seems that claims will be issued by the private sector (PayPal, Google, Equifax, banks, etc.). I’m not sure why this is, but perhaps it speaks to some combination of culture, role of government, trust, and the debacle that REALID has become.

Another issue I see with OpenID relates to the level of assurance you get with an OpenID. As you will know if you look at the pilots that are underway in US Gov, or look at what you can access with an OpenID right now, they are all pretty safe. In other words “good enough” assurance of who you are is ok, and if someone (either the OpenID site or the relying site) makes a mistake it’s no big deal. For much of what government does this is actually an acceptable level of assurance. We just need a “good enough” sense of who you are, and we need to know it’s the same person who was on the site before. However, we ALSO need to solve the MUCH harder problem of HIGH ASSURANCE on-line transactions. All Government’s want to put very high-value services on-line like allowing people access to their personal health information, their kids report cards, driver’s license renewals, even voting some day, and to do these things we have to REALLY be sure who’s on the other end of the Internet. In order to do that someone (we think government) needs to vouch (on-line) that you are really you. The key to our ability to do so is not technology, or picking one solution over the other, the key is the ID proofing experience that happens BEFORE the tech is applied. It’s worth noting that even the OpenID guys are starting to think about OpenID v.Next (http://self-issued.info/?p=256) because they agree with the assurance level limitation of the current implementation of OpenID. And OpenID v.Next will not be backward compatible with OpenID.

Think about it – why is the Driver’s License the best, most accepted form of ID in the “paper” world. It’s because they have the best ID proofing practices. They bring you to a counter, check your foundation documents (birth cert., Card Card, etc.), take your picture and digitally compare it to all the other pictures in the database to make sure you don’t have another DL under another name, etc. Here in BC we have a similar set of processes (minus the picture) under our Personal BCeID service (https://www.bceid.ca/register/personal/). We are now working on “claims enabling” BCeID and doing all the architecture and standards work necessary to make this work for our services. Take a look at this work here (http://www.cio.gov.bc.ca/cio/idim/index.page?).

I really encourage you to take a look at the education link and tell me what you think. Also, the standards package is getting very strong feedback from vendors and standards groups like the ICF, OIX, OASIS and Kantara folks. This is really early days and we are really trying to make sure we get it right – and spend the minimum by tracking to Internet standards and solutions wherever possible.

Sorry for the long post, but like I said – this is important stuff (at least to me!) Keep the fires burning!

Thanks – Dave.

Eaves.ca Blogging Moment #7 (2009 Edition): Explaining the New to the Old

Back in 2007 I published a list of top ten blogging moments – times I felt blogging resulted in something fun or interesting. I got numerous notes from friends who found it fun to read (though some were not fans) so I’m giving it another go. Even without these moments it has been rewarding, but it is nice to reflect on them to understand why spending so many hours, often late at night, trying to post 4 times a week can give you something back that no paycheck can offer. Moreover, this is a chance to celebrate some good fortune and link to people who’ve made this project a little more fun. So here we go…

Eaves.ca Blogging Moment #7 (2009 Edition): Explaining the New to the Old

This year I felt the Opinion page of the Globe needed a loyal opposition. With pretty much every columnist over 50 and most over 60 I was getting tired of hearing how social media was destroying media (and democracy) (it isn’t), global warming didn’t exist, twitter was useless (it isn’t), Palin is a better orator than Obama (she isn’t) and young people don’t care about their country (they do)

If you’ve tuned out of the Globe’s opinion page don’t worry, you’re not alone. You likely are either:

a) under 40;
b) use the internet;
c) think evidence and science matter; or
d) all of the above

The only reason it is depressing is that I believe the Globe matters and I fear they’ve given up on attracting readers who answered (a) to the above.

However, protesting has led to lots of fun, including this debate with Michael Valpy (him, me, him, me) and this response to Lawrence Martin’s piece which, more exciting still, became part of the reading list for Queen’s Pols 110 course.

Upcoming talk: Toronto Innovation Showcase

Just a little FYI to let people know I’m going to be in Toronto on Monday, November 2nd for the City of Toronto’s Innovation Showcase.

I’ll be doing a panel Open Government with Maryantonett Flumian (President of the Institute On Governance, I remember meeting her when she was Deputy Minister of Service Canada), Nick Vitalari (Executive Vice President at nGenera), and Peter Corbett (CEO of iStrategyLabs – which runs the Apps for Democracy Competitions for Washington DC).

The Showcase will be running November 2nd and 3rd and our panel will be on Monday the 2nd from 10:15am until noon in the City Council chambers. Registration is free for those who’d like to come and for those interested but not in Toronto, you will be able to watch a live webcast of the event online from their website. You’ll also be able to follow the event on twitter hashtags #TOshowcase and #opendataTO

The goal of the showcase is to provide:

“a venue for you to come and meet with your colleagues to discuss these questions, hear their success stories, share experiences about opportunities and challenges in the public sector using social media, propose suggestions, exchange information on IT and trends, create connections, knowledge, tools and policies that address the increased demand by citizens for better public service, transparency, civic engagement and democratic empowerment.”

Should be fun – hope to catch you there and to have something fun to blog about after it’s over.

Mapping Government 2.0 against the Hype Curve

Last week Andrea DiMaio wrote an interesting post on how Government 2.0 may be approaching the peak of the hype cycle. I’d never seen the hype cycle before and it looked fun, so I thought it might be interesting to try to map where I believe some current Canadian government 2.0 projects, a few older technologies, and a few web 2.0 technologies in general, are against this chart from a government perspective.

My suspicion is that we haven’t even begun to dip into the Trough of Disillusionment with most true Web 2.0 government projects (GCPEDIA & GCConnex). However, I think governments have overcome their paranoia about facebook, but are still very wary… that said I’ve noticed some government ministries have started to use facebook as a communication tool with the public. Blogs however (which are perfectly okay for public servants to create internally) are still viewed with suspicion – internally they are almost never used. But then, heck, given the cluttered nature of most government website (and the fact that finding info is hard), I think it is clear that we are still working our way up the “Slope of Enlightenment” on this web 1.0 technology.

Gov 20 hype curve 3

Those who’ve seen me speak know I much I love Arthur Schopenhauer‘s three stages of truth:

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

So I’ve also included how I think the three stages map against this chart too.

So in sum… in  my view there is good news for Government 2.0 projects – visibility is still increasing. Unfortunately there is also some bad news: prepare for increased violent opposition…

The Valpy Social Media debate

So a few days ago I posted this response (a cleaner version to be found here at The Mark) to a piece Michael Valpy wrote in the Globe about how social media threatened the social cohesion of the country. My problem with Mr. Valpy’s piece is that it framed the question in the most negative light – seeing only the downside (and in some cases imagined) consequences of social media and none its positives. I was reminded of Steven Johnson’s delightful and intelligent counter-factual that describes a world where video games precede, and are then displaced by, books. One senses that if we lived in a universe where social media preceded main stream media Mr. Valpy would be writing columns worrying about the loss of the country’s small, rich and diverse conversations, crushed by the emergence a dominant agenda, curated by a small elite.

I was initially excited to hear that Mr. Valpy was writing a response in The Mark. Sadly, his piece wasn’t really a response. It addressed none of my critiques. Instead it focused primarily on repeating his original argument, but more slowly, and with bigger words.

I’ve re-read all three pieces and still feel good about my contribution. My main concern is that when reading the counterfactual at the end of my piece, many people have come to assume I look forward to the decline of main stream media (MSM). Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I believe in the potential of social media and, when I stepin  my counterparts shoes, I also see that MSM offers us a great deal. At the same time, I don’t believe MSM is the sole generator of social cohesion, national identity, or democracy. All three existed before the arrival of MSM and, should it come to pass, will survive its decline.

As a newspaper columnist I can imagine it is frightening to see your audience splintered into smaller fragments. At the same time however, I am surprised that a national commentator can’t see how unhealthy this imaginary social cohesion was, and how unsafe the public space was for many people. Remember, this is an article that paints, in a concerning tone, the passing of a world where people, to paraphrase Mr. Valpy, attended a modern version of Mass to become aware of what others thought they should be aware of. That is not a description of an active and engaged citizenry. That is a description of sheep. Well now the sheep are awakening. Yes it is scary, yes there are unknowns, and yes there is fragmentation. But there are also enormous positives, positives I wish Mr. Valpy and others at the Globe would include in their commentary. If they did they and their readers might see what I and those I work with see: the opportunity for something that it is better than what was on offer before, no matter how rosy a picture he paints of the past.

Ultimately, I think Mr. Valpy and I do share common ground. He sees “A glorious objective” in Michale Ignatieff”s call for a public space:

“Isaiah Berlin described this sense of belonging well. He said that to feel at home is to feel that people understand not only what you say, but also what you mean.”

I too believe this is a noble aim. But, while we stand on common ground, I fear Mr. Valpy and I look away in different directions (I would be interested in trying to reconcile these views – and have said as much to him). My reading of his piece leads me to believe that he looks into the past and posits that not only is such a state possible, but suggests we once achieved it. That there was a  Canada where people understood what one another were saying and meant, but that it is slipping away.

For me, I think any such past was more illusion than mirror.

I look forward and see not the realization of Ignatieff’s glorious objective, but an enhanced ability to pursue it. There are no countries where  people understand what each other say and mean. Only countries where citizens are good or bad at committing to try to understand what each other say and mean. In other words, home isn’t where you are understood, it is where others are prepared to go out of their way to understand you.

The opportunity of social media is it gives citizens – The People Formerly Known as the Audience – the ability to increase the range of views about which they want to be understood. This can lead to disagreements (such as the one the Valpy and I are having now) but it also forces us to face the fact that others do not understand, or agree, with what we say or mean. Whether it is disagreeing or agreeing however, the hall mark of social media has been its ability to expose us to new communities – to connect people with others who share interests and care about issues we’ve both long cared for ourselves, or have just discovered. As much as I like my country when its citizens are held to together by a common passport and newspaper, I like it even more when it is held together by a dense weave of overlapping, interconnected, conflicting and ever changing communities around hobbies, politics, personal interests, books, culture, and a million other things. Communities where new voices can be heard and new expressions of the Canadian identity can be manifested.

The promise of social media is its ability to complexify our story, and our relationships with one another. Ultimately, I see that complexity being much more interesting than illusions cast by crude mirrors reflecting only what their holders decide should be seen. Will social media be able to hold up some new “mirror”? I suspect yes, but ultimately don’t know. But whether it can or cannot, I feel optimistic that the ascendancy of social media doesn’t mean the end of our social cohesion.

Dear Valpy: social media isn't killing democracy, it's making it stronger

So I’m really worried I’m becoming the one man rant show about the Globe, but as long as their columnists keep writing stuff that completely misunderstand the intersection between technology and politics, I feel bound to say something.

First it was Martin Lawrence, who was worried about the future of the country since his profile of young people was (as my friend put it) limited to “an unthinking, entitled drain on the country I call home and pillage without contribution…”

Now Michael Valpy is worried. He’s actually worried about a lot of things (which don’t all seem to hang together, but the part that has him most worried is that Canadians are becoming segmented into smaller groups and that this threatens the fabric of our democracy and country.

The premise goes something like this: the decline of main stream media and the rise of social media means Canadians are suffering from a social cohesion deficit. Increasingly we will have less in common with one another and engage in narrower and smaller conversations. As a result, there will no longer be a “political agenda” we all agree we should be talking about. It is all summed with a quote from a Carleton University Professor:

“The thing about newspapers is that you always find things you didn’t know you were looking for. You come across views that you don’t agree with or don’t like,” says Christopher Waddell, director of Carleton University’s school of journalism. “When you’re searching for things on the Internet, I think it’s much less likely that you’re searching for things that challenge you. You’re much more likely to be searching for positive reinforcement.”

and it goes on…

“Society is always better when someone is trying to undermine your views. And particularly, social cohesion is better, because being challenged forces you to think through why you believe what you believe. It’s the stimulus for debate and discussion and a recognition of multiple others.”

What’s so frustrating is that Waddell and Valpy arrive to the debate both 3 years late and with the wrong conclusion. As Steven B Johnson, who wrote one of many fantastic pieces on “serendipity,” might ask: “Does Michael Valpy even use the internet?” But of course a main stream media columnist and a professor who trains them would naturally see a diminishing role for main stream media as a threat to democracy and the very fabric of the country. This argument has been tried, and frankly, it doesn’t have legs. Democracy and Canada will survive the decline of mainstream media – just as it survived before it existed.

Indeed, the decline of mainstream media may actually be healthy for our democracy. Here are two thoughts for Valpy to stew on:

First, comes from Missing the Link, a piece Taylor and I wrote ages ago which keeps proving to be handy:

The “necessary for democracy” argument also assumes that readers are less civically engaged if they digest their news online. How absurd. Gen Y is likely far more knowledgeable about their world than Boomers were. The problem is that Boomers appeared more knowledgeable to one another because they all knew the same things. The limited array of media meant people were generally civically minded about the same things and evaluated one another based on how much of the same media they’d seen. The diversity available in today’s media—facilitated greatly by the internet—means it is hard to evaluate someone’s civic mindedness because they may be deeply knowledgeable and engaged in a set of issues you are completely unfamiliar with. Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement.

This strikes at the core of how Valpy and I disagree. To be harsh, but I believe fair, he is essentially arguing that we may be better off not only if we are dumber, but if we are collectively so. The country is better, stabler and safer if we all talk about the same thing (which really means… what does Toronto/Ottawa/Ontario insert favourite centralist scape goat here, want). Hogwash I say! Diversity is what makes Canada great, and it is, paradoxically, the thing that binds us. Certainly for my tribe the value of Canada is that you can come here and can be what you want. There is a common value set, but it is minimalist. The central value – now protected by the charter – is that you can be who you want to be. And that is something many of us cherish. Indeed, don’t underestimate the fact that that is pretty strong glue, especially in a world where there are many countries in which such a right does not exist.

Second, I think there is compelling case to be made that it is main stream media that is killing democracy. Virtually every political analyst agrees that ever since Trudeau the power of the Prime Minister’s office has been steadily increasing, more recently to a degree that arguably threatens the role and function of parliament. Do Committees matter any more? Not really. Oh, and name a regional MP who has real weight – someone on par to John Crosbie in his hey day. Pretty hard. What about Ministers? There authority (and accountability) is not even a slice of what it used to. And cabinet? Even it toes the line of the mighty all powerful PM.

What parallels this rise in the PMs absolute power? The increased used of modern technologies. TV and polls. With TVs the Prime Minister can speak directly to Canadians everywhere – without having to be mediated by pesky local MPs or representatives. And with polls, the prime minister doesn’t even need local MPs to give him or her the “sense on the ground.”  But imagine a world where the two very things that Valpy fears are in decline – polling and mainstream media – actually do disappear? With a citizenry fractured along hundreds of conversations there are all sorts of information niches for MPs to fill and play important roles within. More importantly, without effective polling MPs local knowledge and local community connections (enhanced by social media) suddenly becomes relevant again.

If anything polling and mainstream media (especially TV) were killing our democracy. Social media may be the reason we get it back.