On Thursday, the Sunlight Foundation launched a campaign to "twitter lobby" Congress, asking citizens to ask their Senators who are on Twitter to co-sponsor S.482. By my count, about 203 tweets were sent out by dozens of individuals. There are 17 members of the United States Senate on Twitter, meaning that through the duration of the campaign (which lasted a few hours yesterday), the members on Twitter received an average of about 12 tweets (11.9411 to be more precise).
So far as a result, two members of the United States Senate announced, over twitter, that they support the bill: @barbara_boxer and @clairecmc. Most surprisingly they announced their support via the medium itself, as well. Judging from the number of contacts, and the rapidity of response, it is one of the most successful grassroots lobbying campaigns in history! 203 Contacts for two public announcements of sponsorship! I'll say this: it would take more than 11 phone calls or emails to persuade a member of Congress to vote on something.
Philosophically, raises an interesting question. On one hand, if Barbara Boxer wasn't a United States Senator, I probably wouldn't care if she was on Twitter. She's not a friend of mine or someone I know. The reason I want her on twitter is so she'll listen to me and hopefully vote the way I want her to. The point of getting members of Congress on Twitter is so that they will listen and so that we can hear from them as real-world human beings rather than vetted, inauthentic communication.
On the other hand this experience may inevitably unleash a monster on Members of Congress. It may not be long before we're looking at swarms of people lobbying their members of congress to vote rendering Twitter completely useless as a medium for members of Congress. And like E-mail, it may become a less effective method of interacting with your representatives.. Soon our twitter streams may be filled with tweet-spam political agendas from our friends, neighbors and the friendly neighborhood lobbyist.
But that Sunlight did this, or that Twitter is set up the way it is, isn't the problem. The solution isn't that Twitter should somehow change, or that people shouldn't voice their opinions to their representatives in a way that best suits them. The problem is that the mediums we have available at our disposal aren't effective or transparent enough to be useful to citizens, members, or organizers. No matter what medium it is, if members of Congress are on it, lobbying, grassroots or otherwise, will quickly follow.
What we need to be thinking about are new mediums that use the collaborative power of the Internet and computational power of machines to effectively communicate with (as opposed to send messages to) Congress through the various mediums that the Internet allows: email, Web, Twitter, and whatever else is out there. It should be a service for both citizens and representatives-- advocacy groups, and heck, even lobbyists to communicate effectively to members of Congress in a transparent way that's open and free.
I've often looked at GetSatisfaction.com as a model for this. GetSatisfaction flipped customer-service on its head by allowing employees to have a voice and help customers solve problems, but also allow customers to solve problems too. And they allow people to aggregate their requests and responses so that they get effectively transmitted up the food chain. I personally think the key is aggregation and transparency of message. It's far more valuable, for instance, for Congress to get a message saying "Don't Club Baby Seals" +400 next to "Club Baby Seals" +100 than it is to get a message saying "Don't Club Baby Seals" 400 times and "Club Baby Seals" 100 times.
We began building out a project in mid-2008 to use this model, and called it GetRepresented, but I think it is time we dusted it off and opened it up a bit. Perhaps it is worth taking a look at building a similar service for Congress in Sunlight Labs? What would it look like? I'm not sure it works to just add our 535 members of Congress to GetSatisfaction, as you've got to do things like verify that a person is from that district. And you probably want to equip some district specific aggregation as well.
I've added a Get Represented wiki page for us to brainstorm and think about this. I'd love to hear your thoughts.