Web 2.0 + Politics: What’s Fair Game?

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With the recent revelation of former Sen. Dean Barkley’s public profile on Match.com, an online dating service, one has to ask where The Line is on the internet and how we know when we’ve crossed it.

Opinion: Web 2.0 + Politics: What’s Fair Game?

Plenty of news has been made about Web 2.0 — technology and applications that reach beyond simple informational websites and databases. Social-networking sites offer unprecedented power to connect with family, friends and colleagues, but unfortunately offer an easy way to provide too much information to the wrong people. Political candidates and elected officials have begun to use these tools in earnest to build grassroots activist bases, raise money and communicate with American citizens.

But at our present location along the path to Web 2.0, there are two questions we need to ask ourselves: How much information is too much, and what is appropriate for public discourse?

Frankly, I could care less if political figures enjoy erotica in their free time. What they do in private is their business and theirs alone — as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Unfortunately, the state of our political discourse and the 24-hour media cycle function in a way that discourages public figures from being honest and open about aspects of their lives that some in the public may find distasteful.

Of course, if you take that argument out to its logical conclusion, a public figure shouldn’t say a blessed word about themselves, their lives, or their non-political passions, because there’s always going to be someone who finds something about them disgusting. Has the age of the colorful political leader ended, ushering in a vanilla-only age? I digress.

Most of the time these personal details prove to be a flash in the pan, a one-day story that, while embarrassing, doesn’t have much of an effect on electoral outcomes (George Felix “Macacawitz” Allen aside). So it could be said that a candidate reveals “juicy” details at his own risk, but that risk isn’t especially high.

The second question is perhaps more important, however: How do we define which of these details are germane to public debate? Unfortunately, those of us outside the State Capitol don’t have Rule 3.21 to fall back on when determining what’s relevant and what is merely the ramblings of partisan attack droids. So what’s the answer? In theory, elections should be decided on the issues — Iraq, health care, education, Social Security. Right?

In practice, unfortunately, candidates and political leaders compete for media time not just with sitcoms and soap operas, but with dozens of diversions and information sources on the same web they’re using to spread their message. In a media cycle dominated by the short attention span, the sound bite and the 30-second stump speech, elections can turn on the lurid details of what so-and-so’s son posted on MySpace and how it reflects on so-and-so’s family values and how that story gets shoved into the 10 o’clock news. Is it possible for candidates and elected leaders to pivot on such attacks and use them as opportunities to continue spreading their message? Absolutely. Have many public figures figured out how to do so? Unfortunately, not yet.

Welcome to Web 2.0, congresscritters, governors, mayors, dog catchers and presidential contenders. Hope you’re ready.