By Dave Maney

If what’s coming out of Washington sounds and feels increasingly like an Internet flame war to you, Clay Shirky thinks you’re probably right.  Our leaders are acting like opposing geek factions on a World of Warcraft discussion board.

The breakdown of our current political system has begun to resemble what social media thinker and teacher Shirky says goes on in dysfunctional social media communities and online user groups:

  • Users questioning the fundamental motives of other users.
  • Free-flowing harsh, insulting language.
  • No give-and-take or bi-directional discussion aimed at dispute resolution, and participants who have stopped listening to each other.
  • Increasingly hard lines being taken over what seem to be relatively small differences of opinion.
  • The harshness and hostility of the disputes driving needed new blood away from the repulsive spectacle of the fighting.
  • Ultimately, a failure to deliver the idea generation, support, deliberation, and sense of community that was the intended purpose of the group in the first place.

The net result: Everyone suffers. Problems don’t get solved. Insight doesn’t get offered. Everyone grows disillusioned with the group. Other groups with a better-defined idea of their purpose and process become more successful and more popular and the fighting, factional group becomes a mere shell of its formerly vibrant self.

All of which sounds very much like what’s happening in the United States.

So what to do about it? If our leaders are emulating all that can go wrong in an online community, could a high-functioning, highly effective online model show us the way back home?

The success and interesting parallels of socially-driven “open source” software may actually do just that.

What Being a Social Media Guru Means

Anyone interested in a serious attempt at fixing our broken political system needs to sit down first with Shirky. If they can absorb what he knows about how human beings relate to each other via our now Internet-driven universe, they’ll have an enormous head start.

Shirky, who teaches the theory and practice of social media at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, is also the author of two incredibly influential books on social media. (Publisher’s note: If you haven’t read Here Comes Everybody, you must. Must!!)

His work lives at the intersection of technology and sociology. “I try to join classic, stylized accounts of how humans behave in groups with the question of ‘What difference does it make that we have this powerful medium?’ ” he says.

His students aspire to use social media and the Internet to fix governmental inefficiencies, spread the word about political and social causes, make companies more effective, make education more powerful, and generally change the world for the better. “Part of what I do is help people think about social tools as a design problem. The ‘comment’ button is the least imaginative way to share and contribute…so I work with students and organizations on what lies beyond that.”

Open Source Software and the Idea of the United States

So what do social tools have to offer us in the way of inspiration for fixing our broken ship of state?

My discussion with Clay for this piece started on the work he’s been doing for the past decade on social collaboration tools but suddenly veered into the current dysfunctions and problems of the U.S. government when I made an offhand remark about parallels between the founding ideals of the United States and the ideals of the open source software movement.

Open source software, if you didn’t already know, is a class of programs created by coders from around the world for free public usage via a structured but fundamentally wide-open process of cooperation and review on the Internet. It’s considered a close cousin of social media, since its processes are also based in Internet-enabled group collaboration.

Open source development guidelines suggest the criticality of broad involvement. “It’s called ‘cooperation gain’” says Shirky. “Things get better from sharing effects when there are more involved.”

The guidelines also demand frequent revisions of the software platform to avoid a critical build-up of bugs/problems, a bias toward innovation through a culture of tolerance of “good” mistakes, breaking down change into manageable bites, and assuring that nothing clogs the arteries of the development decision making process.

Both the United States and open source software have origins in the desire to liberate people from a tyrannical, controlling force (England in the former case, mostly Microsoft in the latter). Both sought to create a better, more open atmosphere anchored in some core beliefs about the fundamental wisdom and rights of individuals. Both boldly invited contributions and input from people around the world, and were enriched by receiving them. Both provided ideal environments for building great endeavors and significant wealth. And both have rules about how the core system and governance processes can be accessed, added to, changed, and amended.

The words of one of open source’s most avid champions makes the comparison crystal clear. Alison Randal, a noted programming thinker and open source guru, said “The ideas behind open source are about freedom, that people should have certain basic rights in the software that they use, the same as every other part of life. It’s about people’s rights to create things they’re passionate about.”

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of digital happiness, in other words.

But Can an Open Source Society Compete?

My conclusion is that open, powerful platforms can outperform closed “priesthood” cultures and approaches in many critical contexts. They feed basic human needs for accomplishment, cooperation, and recognition. I’m just not sure, after talking with Clay, that the American governmental system fits that definition anymore.

It’s obvious that open source software can compete: It’s revolutionizing and dominating the computing world this century, just as the U.S. shaped and dominated the globe during the 20th century. Linux, the original open source software project, is the standard operating system for most web servers and forms the spine of cloud computing, which is rapidly re-making the entire IT world.

We couldn’t have cloud computing without open source software, according to Shirky. “You couldn’t imagine the cloud even existing if you had to have each use of the operating system  accounted for and paid for by whoever was accessing it,” he says.

But open source software is ascendant while the American economy and system are taking a nasty licking. Why?

Quite likely because our nation has lost much of its systemic dynamism and flexibility, says Shirky. “I think we made one macro mistake in our Constitution, and that is that we made it too hard to update. We made it far too easy for one faction or one person to have their hands on the ‘stop’ button.”

As a result, Shirky says “I’m much more worried about sclerosis than decay.  We’ve made it too easy for people to clog the system, and we can’t react fast enough to the changes around us.”

Clogged Pipes and National Tooth Decay

With a Congress in such severe gridlock that we can’t even figure out how to keep the government from facing repeated shutdowns, you don’t have to go very far to convince Americans that the system is clogged. So how hard is it to make some changes in the actual system?

Really hard.

The most recent amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the 27th) became law in 1992. It’s not exactly world-changing stuff – it says that any pay raises Congress votes itself don’t go into effect until after the next election. How long did it take to become law? It was originally proposed in 1789.

So it took 203 years for a relatively straightforward, common sense idea to run the gauntlet. Meanwhile, the last amendment significantly aimed at reforming the operations of Congress – viewed by the American people as the most broken portion of a badly broken government – was the 17th, passed 99 years ago and requiring direct election of U.S. Senators. (They were chosen by state legislatures in many cases prior to that.)

It’s the equivalent of not brushing the teeth of our Republic for a century. We’ve invited decay.

Run Your Program Here

What’s particularly ironic is that the American system truly was the gold standard of sovereign operating systems, and tres open source in its heyday: Bring your idea/program here. Play by this light set of rules. Don’t interfere with the other ideas/programs going on, and you’ll flourish here. Now we have an operating system/government that can’t get out of its own way, an invasive regulatory culture and a seemingly large and growing strain of nativism.

But the Statue of Liberty’s inscription doesn’t say, “Send me just your best and brightest, and we’ll make a place for them.” It says

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore                                                                                                               Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Our system, in other words, was good enough, robust enough, powerful enough, and made us confident enough, that we readily helped lift “wretched refuse” and “homeless” to success and security.

The U.S. was societal Linux. Constantly being improved, and always the best platform on which to run. Not anymore.

What to Do About It?

There is remarkably little discussion about systemic change in America today. Even our hope-and-change president never focused for a moment on our system itself, instead spending all his time and effort on policy ideas. Ironically, whether his ideas were good or bad, the fact is that our sclerotic system allowed Shirky’s “no” button to be pressed repeatedly, and since 2010’s elections, by both sides. The change president may have focused his change guns on the wrong stratum.

It may well be time that Americans start to call for a return to an open source philosophy of governance. Recent essayists have claimed that we suffer from “too much democracy.” Perhaps what we suffer from is too much democratic energy going toward unproductive means.

If the currently angry and dissatisfied user community (U.S. citizens, that is) started to focus its collective energy on demanding a new and better governance process, one informed, like open source, by the best ideas of hundreds of thousands or even millions of contributors, watched over by the group as a whole and moderated by a clearly-stated, dynamic decision making mechanism to choose the best ideas and direction for this new governmental “operating system” itself – well perhaps we’d feel like a heart patient after a good angioplasty and a new set of stents.

We’d still have our problems, but at least the heart of the republic would be renewed to fight another day.


  • The U.S.’s governance systems haven’t exactly kept up with the economic and social revolution unleashed by the Internet.
  • We may have been the most innovative sovereign state on earth in our early incarnation, but if we want to remain competitive on the world stage, we’re going to need a systemic renewal that helps us be more flexible, more transparent, and as attuned to the rapidly emerging future as we have been to our glorious past.
  • Our original system almost looks like the blueprint for the open source movement, but what it’s evolved to today seems almost the opposite.
  • We should consider ways to use social tools and development models to harness the amazing brainpower and creativity of the American citizenry to push forward ideas for fundamental Constitutional and systemic reforms.

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