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Yes We Can...Use Comments, Web Services on Government Web Sites

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For years, government web sites have avoided comments and third-party Web 2.0 tools for fear of confusing user contributed content with official content and violating various policy and compliance rules. What if a user comment posted dropped the f-bomb or stated inaccurate information about a government program? What if an embedded visualization did not conform to section 508 accessibility requirements?

Yesterday, in one small blog post for a web site, but one giant web page for .gov web sites, Change.gov demonstrated how government sites could begin to join the rest of Web 2.0-kind.

1. Blog.  Simple content management with many features baked-in.

2. RSS. An open standard for making a web page machine readable for easy syndication.

3. Call for participation. Asking people to contribute. This post is itself a response to 3,500 comments made on earlier blog post.

4. Embedded YouTube video. Free video services like YouTube are a part of the Web 2.0 infrastructure. Government should use this infrastructure freely in the same way it uses email, HTTP, and public highways.

5. Alternative media formats. Single vendor endorsements and platform exclusivity is easily addressed by links to the video available on alternative services and formats. It's the web, people.

6. Wordle tag cloud. This beautiful data visualization of the top 100 most popular words in the 3,500+ user comments on healthcare is auto-generated by a third-party tool, probably Many Eyes. Also free.

7. User comments. First, it's user comments. Second, it's powered by a third-party service, IntenseDebate.com. Because one of IntenseDebate's feature is the ability for the account owner to export all the comments, there are no lock-in or availability or document archival issues. In fact, the wordle tag cloud was probably generated by dumping the content and putting it copying and pasting it into the wordle generator.

8. RSS. For users to follow the comment thread when not at the web site. Follow the all comments, or just particular threads.

9. Identified users...with reputation points. It's optional. And while many have been wringing their hands on how to perfectly do identity and reputation systems for interaction with citizens, choice of a third-party commenting system to removes any government involvement with identity--save existing subpoena authority--and leaves it to the market to sort the issue out.

10. Wisdom of the crowds. Participants vote comments up or down in order to help popular content rise to the top and off-topic stupidity sink to the bottom.

11. Group monitoring. Trust participants to flag content for inappropriateness. Errors will happen, but the vast majority of the crowd means well and will sort out bad apples quickly.

12. Simple, threaded discussion. Adds a minimal but important organizing principle to thousands of comments. (Obviously, managing comments requires new techniques, but that will come, too.)

13. Ajax-based threading. Out with Web 1.0 clumsiness and in with Web 2.0 rich interaction without page reloading.

14. Submit a comment. It's right there, for anyone to use. Three simple fields. Obviously, people have figured out how to use it.

15. OpenID. An embrace of another open standard, this one for identity management, where users ultimately control portable identities online allowing people to use the same identity on different .gov sites regardless of vendor.

16. Comment Policy. Change.gov's comment policy is half a page: stay focused, be respectful, tell the truth, no spam. "We retain the discretion to determine which comments violate our comment policy. We also reserve the right to remove violations. We expect all contributors to be respectful."