The Pros And Cons Of A YouTube Democracy President Obama plans Monday to answer questions submitted via YouTube. But "YouTube democracy" isn't without its quirks — there are plenty of questions about UFOs and Scientology amid queries about health care and the economy. Host Guy Raz talks to Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation about integrating social media into the democratic process.
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The Pros And Cons Of A YouTube Democracy

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The Pros And Cons Of A YouTube Democracy

The Pros And Cons Of A YouTube Democracy

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GUY RAZ, host:

Right now, thousands of people on YouTube are deciding what question they'd most like to ask President Obama. He'll answer a few of them Monday as part of a project called CitizenTube.

Now, so far, there have been questions about health care, the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of them want the president's views on UFOs and Scientology. But the most popular questions, by far, are about one thing.

Unidentified Man #1: Our country's failed prohibition on marijuana. When will you change these foolish and unjust laws so that the inevitable buyers of marijuana in the U.S. are contributing to a regulated system here at home and not terror along our border?

RAZ: This isn't the president's first YouTube Q&A. Here's how he handled the same topic last year.

President BARACK OBAMA: There was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high, and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: And I don't know what this says about the online audience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: And he went on to conclude:

Pres. OBAMA: The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.

RAZ: Clay Johnson is the technology director at the Sunlight Foundation. He pushes for open government and integrating social media into politics.

Clay Johnson, welcome to the program.

Mr. CLAY JOHNSON (Technology Director, Sunlight Foundation): Hi there, Guy.

RAZ: Okay. So, can we infer that legalizing pot is the most important issue in America right now?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, you know, if that was the case, then we probably have a lot of marijuana users going, dude, where's my polling place or something like that, because they certainly don't show up to vote.

RAZ: I got you. So before we could continue, I do want to play a few other questions that were submitted to President Obama.

Unidentified Man #2: How many turkey sandwiches can you eat in one day?

Unidentified Man #3: Would you support legislation for a national bedtime?

RAZ: Is this really an example of democratizing this process?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, there's a couple of things you have to look at here. First off, you know, YouTube is the venue where people are asking these questions, which is the home of cat on a Roomba punching a pit bull in a sweater vest.

RAZ: I didn't see that one.

Mr. JOHNSON: Saying that this community is representative of American society at large is probably incorrect.

RAZ: So, what's the point of doing it on YouTube? Or why would the president say let's open YouTube up and I will take questions from anybody who wants to film themselves asking me a question?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think he gets to engage people directly in a one-on-one or a one-to-many kind of way outside of, you know, the news media so he can answer these questions directly to people that are asking him.

RAZ: But he could do that at a town hall meeting face-to-face.

Mr. JOHNSON: He could do that, but he can't do it to millions of people. You know, the number of people on YouTube far exceed the capacity of all of the stadiums in the United States of America combined. YouTube is probably the largest video site on the Internet...

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...and the most appropriate venue for the president to go and answer these questions.

But it's important to remember that just because, you know, an organization or a group or a community is the most well-organized doesn't mean they're the most popular. So when you see, for instance, marijuana questions being the top question, it doesn't mean that they're the most popular amongst all of America. What it means is this is the most organized community...

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...that's capable of getting their, you know, plus-one-ing their question.

RAZ: And when you plus-one-ing, that means you're voting for it.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, you're up-voting it. What's really interesting is you can watch people organize to rig these questions, which isn't something that you can do, you know, with, say, lobbyists.

RAZ: And how can you see that?

Mr. JOHNSON: So you can go on like, right, and plug in CitizenTube, space, marijuana and you get a list of all of the mailing lists that Google indexes out there. And the discussions of people saying, hey, go plus one this question. And you can, in a really transparent way, watch people organize and see what's going on.

RAZ: Does this process actually distort the power of a small number of people, in a sense, kind of undermine the whole point of democratizing this whole thing?

Mr. JOHNSON: You get into a weird civics question here, right? Because does the fact that we have a House of Representatives rather than direct democracy where people are actually voting on bills also speak to that. You know, sometimes a popularity contest isn't the best answer.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. And we should mention that, I mean, these questions are filtered.

Mr. JOHNSON: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: Even if a question gets a lot of votes, it doesn't mean the president is going to answer it. So, what's the point of openly soliciting questions if the people behind this are going to select the questions anyway?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, it's to get the really good ones. On one side of the spectrum, you have the president and his staff will make up both the questions and the answers that the president will answer. On the other side of the spectrum, you know, you let the people choose all of the questions that'll get asked and the president has to say, no, we're not going to legalize marijuana and, no, we don't have no evidence of UFOs and, yes, I have produced my birth certificate. Now, let's get to the real substantial questions that people have asked that maybe we didn't think of, right? It's called crowdsourcing.

RAZ: And did you video yourself or did you submit...

Mr. JOHNSON: No, I just submitted it in text. I have a face made for radio.

RAZ: Well, that's why we invited you here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's Clay Johnson. He is the director of technology at the Sunlight Foundation.

Clay Johnson, thanks for coming in.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you very much, Guy.

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