launched a Digg-inspired feature yesterday that allows users to submit questions to the Obama transition teams and vote questions submitted by other visitors up or down.  Open for Questions has enjoyed a good deal of activity so far (410,000 votes on over 5,000 questions) even though it is not at all clear what the transition team intends to do with the data it collects.  The feature is the latest in a series of experiments in “participatory government” launched by the transition team. 

Open for Questions is powered by Google Moderator, and while Digg is the most obvious point of reference, there are clearly some key differences.  Open for Questions has very limited functionality, which makes me think the transition team is up to something very different from creating a Digg-style system.  Here is some key functionality that has been left out:

  • You can’t comment on the questions at all.  All you can do is submit questions and vote.
  • The site doesn’t include permalinks for specific questions.  This will make it more difficult for advocacy groups and other interested parties to promote specific questions, as you can’t easily forward questions to others with a plea for a vote.  (Note: you can get around this by linking to the profile of a specific user who is charged with submitting the questions you wanted promoted).
  • The transition team appears to be have turned off functionality in Google Moderator that organizes questions by topics, meaning your ability to find questions is limited to a search.
  • There is no Digg-style queue for discovering new content.  Instead, new questions are fed to you at random to vote on one at a time.
  • There is an area that lists the leading questions, but it isn’t the key point of the site as it is on Digg.  The user interface emphasizes the submission of new questions and voting on questions at random, as opposed to glorifying the leading questions.
  • There are no user profiles.  The only information you can enter about yourself is your name and location.  The result is that people will use the site in anonymity.  This is in stark contrast to Digg that allows you to create a robust profile, and which is dominated by a relatively small group of users.

The net result of all this is that Open for Questions reminds me more of crowdsourcing efforts like Google Image Labeler and Mechanical Turk than of Digg.  By leaving out all that functionality, the tool drowns out all the noise and nonsense and tries to focus exclusively on discovering the best questions.  What we have here is very focused participatory democracy. 

Anyone who has played with these sorts of voting systems knows that they have serious flaws and understands the choices the transition team has made.  The two biggest problems with voting systems are the ability of  bands of committed advocates to wield disproportionate influence and the tendency of the majority to bury important but unpleasant content.  

From my review, so far it doesn’t look like any groups are taking the voting over the way Ron Paul supporters did on Digg (and many other venues) or Rebuild the Party.  I’m frankly surprised the Paul folks haven’t shown up yet.  However, the majority is actively burying content ton topics they don’t want to discuss.  A number of questions about the Rod Blagojevich scandal that were submitted to the site have not only been voted down, but flagged as inappropriate, meaning they are no longer available on the site and can only be found through back channel searches.  Not surprising. 

Despite the flaws, I really like what the transition team has done and I think the approach they have taken is as good as any for this type of thing.  What do you think?

About the Author
Todd Zeigler
Todd Zeigler serves as the Brick Factory’s chief strategist and oversees the operations of the firm. In his sixteen year career in digital, he has planned and implemented campaigns for clients including the Pickens Plan, International Youth Foundation, Panthera, Edison Electric Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Todd develops ambitious online advocacy programs, manages crises, implements online marketing strategies, and develops custom applications and software. He is bad at golf though.