New social media app could revolutionize Internet commenting

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This week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa represents the true kickoff of a referendum on two starkly different men, parties, and political philosophies. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s going to be one for the books.

It didn’t take long for President Obama’s controversial policies to give rise to a popular protest movement. The ascendancy of the tea party in turn led to a “time out” for the Democratic Party in the form of a resounding defeat in the 2010 midterm election. But two years after Republicans gained control of the House, the approval rating of Congress stands at an abysmal 10 percent. And whoever wins the presidential election will likely face automatic tax increases, legislatively mandated budget decreases, and a resulting double-dip recession.

In times such as these, political junkies would surely enjoy a new way to influence the national debate on pressing policy issues. They will be interested to hear of a new social media application I have been helping to beta test for an organization called Engage America.

Inspired by the quintessentially American beliefs that “prosperity and the common good are realized through well-reasoned policies” and “long-term prosperity requires strong economic growth driven by innovation, free markets with a proper level of government oversight, and reasonable tax policy,” Engage America is using the Web 2.0 to empower regular citizens to influence the discourse about what concrete actions our government should take to realize those agreeable principles.

The new social media platform at the center of their efforts has a sort of simple, “Why didn’t I think of that?” appeal. In short, EA empowers people to post more insightful comments on articles on the websites of national and local newspapers, as well as prominent Internet outlets like The Huffington Post and Breitbart.com. Users are encouraged to make rational, dispassionate arguments using facts and figures, and Engage America provides them with supporting material.

Each user has an account on Engage America’s new application, which has an interface not unlike a Gmail account. The software provides users with a list of worthwhile articles on the topics EA covers — these topics are the hot-button economic issues for the 2012 presidential election such as taxes, the deficit, jobs, and regulatory policy. Users can click on an article, give it a read, and if they feel so moved, make a comment. This sort of one-stop shopping is gold to the public-spirited, who are already engaging on social media every day.

Particularly useful is the special emphasis EA places on articles from local publications in swing states. This allows users from solidly blue or red states whose votes are normally “canceled out” to reach across state lines and have more of a political impact.

As you might expect, the creators of this program want as much information as they can get on how users interact with it. In order to get that information, they need to attract early adopters. So they have created a rewards program. Users log their comments into the software, along with any responses or votes their comments provoke. The more replies a given comment gets, the more points users earn within the Engage America software. Users with the highest number of points can earn gift cards for merchants like Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Apple.

Engage America is a win-win. It highlights key articles and commentary for participants, giving them the chance to elevate their own arguments and the tone of the civic discourse on the whole. The incentives encourage users to participate in ongoing debates, rather than just making hit-and-run comments on the articles they read. And who doesn’t like getting the occasional gift card? Personally, I would (and do) loudly argue my case for free, but ours is an incentive economy.

But Engage America’s mission to advance the dialogue won’t be effective if everyone doesn’t come to the table. An energetic debate requires the diverse viewpoints of Republicans, Democrats, and independents. The core beliefs of EA should be just as agreeable to those on the center-left as they are to those on the center-right. It’s the particulars that need hammering out. Our economy requires sustained growth. Our deficit needs to be cut. But these are anodyne platitudes. What specific policy changes should we advocate for in order to make those goals a reality?

I have joined that broader discussion via Engage America. I have had a fun time testing my mettle in the comments sections of websites outside of my political comfort zone. And as a bonus, I’ve used the proceeds from my gift cards to purchase a Kindle. In fact, I have been the undisputed leader in pulling in prizes from EA for a few months now. This could be a good thing for me; some high-dollar travel vouchers are promised to those who lead at the end of a year. But for the sake of this innovative new technology — and more importantly, for the sake of the national discourse — I hope that many of you will join me, whatever your political stripes.

Bill Zeiser is a communications consultant living in New York City and a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BillZeiser.

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