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We can haz democracy

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On behalf of the Internet: welcome aboard Mr. Harper!

The Prime Minister's new tricked out YouTube site is hosting a pre-approved, moderated Q&A between the PM and Canadian citizens. This comes on the heels of a budget brought to you by Twitter and Michael Ignatieff's own pre-vetted, realtime chat sessions.

Have our elected representatives suddenly developed an appetite for Web 2.0?

More likely, they are jumping on the social networking bandwagon after the success of a little Facebook group earlier this year and the ensuing buzz around politics and the Internet. While throwing around phrases like "connecting with youth" makes for good PR, I'm not convinced that this foray into the digital world is going to do much to get Canadians fired up for political involvement.

Our political parties are top-down, hierarchical structures -- after all, we can't have MPs spouting their mouths off or speaking to the leader on a first name basis. While this is good for a system in which power is concentrated in Central Command, it's completely incongruent with the way the web actually works. Anyone with a keyboard and a ethernet connection can get online to contribute and/or troll. It is currently one of our purest forms of democracy and while there are risks (eg the invariable Bilderberg/Illuminati Flame War) they can be mitigated. As a moderator the trick is from the outset to position yourself as one capable of taking criticism and acknowledging dissent. For a Prime Minister who has long espoused an "I'm-not-listening" approach, his YouTube experiment comes across more as a death bed conversion then a road to Damascus transformation. If you see Mr. Harper's exercise as anything other then a chance to regurgitate his talking points, then I have an overused bridge metaphor I'd like to sell you.

The surest way to engage will always be face-to-face interaction between constituents and their Members of Parliament, who need to be empowered and not simply expected to toe the party line. If government is genuinely interested in using social media to connect with Canadians, then they'll need to rethink some basics about their role and the way they operate. For instance, why not stream committee meetings online and allow users to submit questions in real time? It is one thing to let people passively watch the Prime Minister in a YouTube address, but it's quite another to invite them into the conversation.

The overarching lesson here extends to citizens movements hoping to capitalize on social networking. Traditional NGOs operate in the same way as governments with formal structure, quorums and scandals. The anti-prorogation movement succeeded because it gave people a forum to vent, debate and organize without any of that excess baggage. Anyone could stand up, and put forward an idea, and if it gained traction it would be a success.

I'm happy to see the prorogation momentum being channeled into a broader social movement just so long as it remains a loosely organized coalition of concerned Canadians where leadership is malleable and initiatives can grow organically. Any attempt at imposing structure would be like trying to building a skyscraper out of Jell-O. Canadians are tired of figuratively banging their heads against the doors to Parliament, but we need to create a new system rather then emulating the outmoded one we currently have.

Christopher White is a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He started the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, which boasts over 224,000 members.

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