@AskThemPPF: Socializing and gatekeeping the online petition

A friend of mine recently pointed me to a very interesting website: AskThem.  It’s a very interesting concept that essentially seeks to add a stronger Social Media element to the online petition movement (see Change.org for an example).  I think the idea is a great one if it can encourage elected officials to be more responsive to massive needs, but I have a few problems with it.

First, from the website itself, here’s a description on how the site works:

  • Individuals and organizations enter a street address on AskThem to find their elected officials and ask them a question, with option to attach an issue category or an image or a video.
  • Once created, questions circulate (like online petitions) over email and social media to reach a signature threshold set by AskThem (and continually adjusted based on feedback).
  • When the question reaches its signature threshold, it is briefly reviewed by AskThem staff, and then delivered to the question’s recipient over email and social media, with a request to respond publicly on our non-profit platform.
  • Any elected official may sign up to become a verified responder on AskThem, free of charge. Verified responders simply agree to respond to one or two popular questions per month that reach the signature threshold – in most cases, for elected officials, with at least half of signatures coming from constituents.
  • Comment forums on question pages with a public response will keep the conversation going, to increase public accountability and raise new issues.
  • AskThem users can also ask question to any verified Twitter account, who can similarly sign up for free as verified responders. This includes any public figure from companies to spokespeople to media figures to celebrities.

The homepage has replete with questions that are seeking supporters so the question can be formally delivered to the recipient.  A quick glance reveals questions about domestic surveillance, unemployment insurance extension, net neutrality and the Green Party.  It does have some high profile backers like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who recently tweeted about AskThem:

This is a really good idea in a few ways.  First, by adding a social element to the standard online petition, it helps the questions build momentum.  By requiring that questions hit a certain threshold to be delivered, it’s helps to incentivize others to become more active in explaining their issue and making others ask their question.  I’m all about anything that will encourage people to get more active in the political arena.  It’s also a pleasant change from the Change.org petitions in that questions are shorter and easier to understand.  As an elected, I’ve gotten a few Emails from those petitions, but the questions are often long, rambling and come from people well outside of my district.  The site will also keep track of answers, making them centrally located and easy to find.

However, it’s the threshold that has to be reached before a question can be delivered that is also the greatest weakness of AskThem.  Why should a threshold have to be hit before a question can be answered?  If someone wants to ask a question to an elected official, do it!  A third party is not required.  Heck, you don’t even need the post office or a phone line anymore–just pick up your iPhone and tweet.  In that sense, this is the biggest problem with AskThem: it tries to insert itself as a gatekeeper when none is necessary.

I have two other problems.  First, an “asking threshold” of any kind creates disincentives for super-specific questions that are important to one constituent in particular, but not to many.  Sure, hot-button issues, like NSA surveillance, will get a lot of play, but what about putting a stop sign on 19th and Livingston?  Second, and related, is that the site just wasn’t built for local elected officials.  It concentrates on bigger issues and more visible politicians, but at the expense of us local guys.

If you have some more information on AskThem, I’d love to hear it.  Let me know in the comments!

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