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For What It's Worth

For What It's Worth

Among those granted media credentials for the US Democratic National Convention in Boston this July were more than 30 independent Web journalists. As soon as the announcement of that decision was made, the Republicans said they would credential so-called bloggers too.

In last July, before his candidacy crashed and burnt, the Howard Dean campaign used its weblog to expose plans by Vice-President Dick Cheney to host a $2000-per-plate fundraiser. When Dean called on his network of readers and bloggers to better the $250,000 Cheney was expected to raise he got almost 10,000 people responses and netted about $500,000 in just four days.

Sure, one might argue that it was the traditional, mainstream media's relentless hammering of Dean's so-called "scream" and their charges of radicalism that ultimately killed his campaign, suggesting traditional journalists still hold the real power for now, but that does not mean that the amateurs, in the form of political webloggers, are not fighting back.

As Los Angeles-based technology writer Victor Romero wrote: "Though former Democratic contender Howard Dean may not go down in history as the 44th US president, his campaign may go down in history because it changed the way political hopefuls rally support.

"The campaign's unique use of Internet technology, such as meetup.com, could be a useful lesson to others wishing to gain office - especially lesser-known candidates for state and local offices."

Something is happening here. Weblogs ('blogs') and their associated "social software" tools have been making waves for more than a year. The British government, studying communications techniques that can bring government ministers and citizens closer together, sees the potential of weblogs to do just that.

After all, bloggers seem to be going from strength to strength. A national Pew survey conducted in February found that 5 percent of the 128 million American adults who use the Internet had created a blog, while more than 17 percent called themselves blog readers. Whole democratic communities are being forged online, often out of sight of the governments increasingly seeking to reach out to citizens via government-managed information portals. New communication technologies are beginning to mediate democracy in powerful and ultimately unpredictable ways.

It is a trend public servants and political commentators in designing e-government and e-democracy policy cannot afford to ignore.

So when Alabama state governor Bob Riley undertook a "Jobs Mission" to England and Germany in July to personally meet with leaders of European companies in order to bring new jobs to Alabama, he invited citizens to keep track of his activities and the progress of the business recruitment effort through an online journal or "blog".

And when Eden Prairie Police Chief Dan Carlson opened his weblog the same month, he wrote: "Public trust is a critical component of a successful police operation. Open communications and positive community relationships are critical to building public trust. The purpose of this weblog is to open lines of communication and build relationships".

Well quite. One day, every government agency may feel compelled to follow suit. Perhaps democracy will be all the better for it.

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