Polling and lobbying are powerful factors of government that aren’t usually covered in Civics 101. Both are huge industries, and both shape the way political decisions are made. The current wave of web technology is going to create a hybrid form that will reshape politics.
According to 2002 Census data, the marketing research & public opinion polling industry as a whole had revenues of $10.9 billion; special interests paid Washington lobbyists $3.2 billion in 2008 according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Lobbying is as old as politics, but polling is relatively new (19th century), as is its premise: the importance of mass public opinion in government and diplomacy (18th century). Lobbyists are key players in Washington DC, and there’s a revolving door that moves former federal employees into jobs as lobbyists, and that pulls former hired guns into government careers or political appointments. Polling expertise is a key attribute in top political advisors, and something that politicians – and administrations – do incessantly.
The social media technologies of Web 2.0 will create a lobbying/polling hybrid and create a new political power center to rival traditional lobbying and polling. Efforts by government to solicit citizen opinion, like the Ideascale site soliciting input on the National Broadband Plan, or the Open for Questions site run by the White House, are a way for citizens to engage in little-L lobbying. These channels invite manipulation that will amount to big-L lobbying. In the same way that astroturfing co-opted grassroots lobbying, political operatives will co-opt the forms of web 2.0 citizen participation. Those who are adept at viral marketing will propel political memes into real-time polling tools in way that amounts to lobbying.
The amplification of the randomly popular that is pervasive on social rating sites like digg will infuse politics, intensifying the temptations of “poll, then decide”. We’ll also likely see something akin to the hollowing out of the media industry mid-list that The Economist charted in “A world of hits”: In movies and books, both blockbusters and the long tail are doing well; the losers are titles (and retailers) in the not-quite-so-good middle ground. Similarly, blockbuster issues will be laid on for the mass public that doesn’t care about politics (shibboleths like taxes and abortion), and niche lobbying on topics like radio spectrum, prison reform, and privacy will become even more fine-grained. Citizen publics will be important in both: as armies of computer-generated extras in the first case, and as engaged semi-experts in the second. Worthy mid-ground issues like trade, education, and energy policy will get steadily shorter shrift.
One implication is that niche topics like hunger policy shouldn’t strive to move up the charts into the middle ground – they’ll just wither there. Rather, niche players should embrace their residence in the long tail and make the most of Web 2.0 phenomena, like Polling x Lobbying, that give them direct access to the appropriate sliver of the policy making elite.