John Klossner

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10 suggestions for improving the USA.gov feedback process

Free pizza

In reading the cover story in the Jan. 31 New York Times Sunday Magazine about a boy who grew up in Alabama, was a popular high-school student and is now leading a jihadist cell in Somalia, one element of the reporting that stuck out for me was the paper trail. Or, to put it in technologically current terms, the digital trail. As someone who is old enough to naively believe that one still has a right to privacy in this culture, I was amazed at how complete a picture could be created of this person--who left the country five years ago and is currently thought to be living in the Somali bush--from chat room comments, e-mails and conversations with old friends.

It made me think about the profile that can be created on each of us by searching through our electronic records. It also made me want to be much more careful and well-thought about anything I've ever written. And then it made me depressed, realizing that for me it probably is way too late.

If we all became more aware of our digital trail, would that create digital morality? Would we be more thoughtful if we knew that a body of our work was being gathered to create a public profile? It is with this in mind that I entertain ideas to improve the online public suggestions process. USA.gov recently held a forum to get suggestions for improving its Web site. In reading through the piles of comments, one finds--like too many online comments sections--a dearth of well-thought out and considered material. In talking with experts about improving the online feedback process, one suggestion repeatedly comes to the top: the elimination of anonymity. If people have to openly stand by their words and thoughts, they will put more thought into them, or at least avoid the knee-jerk reactions that sometimes clutter comments sections.

This stands in contrast to the original appeal of being online: the Internet where, as the famous New Yorker cartoon put it, "Nobody knows you're a dog." One of the strengths of online conversation was its anonymity. We all thought that the ideas alone, without the associations of who stated them, would flower and carry the conversation. The least powerful among us could converse with the powerful and connected on a level playing field. All ideas had equal access.

Well, it now seems that we've run out of ideas. (My personal theory is that everyone in the world now has a blog, and all these comments are being randomly generated by a server in Wilmington, Del.). It appears that nothing productive will come of the online suggestion process until we return to a world without anonymity. This doesn't have to be a harsh process. There are ways to make it subtle, even enjoyable. I offer the following ideas for making the feedback process more productive or, at least, more entertaining:

Require all comments to include an accurate photograph of the commenter.

Post all submissions on a Beltway billboard with the photograph.

Charge for comments (this may not improve the suggestions, but it will provide spending money for lunch or budget deficits).

In order to comment, applicants should be required to read--and choose from--100 other comments.

In order to make more than three comments, applicants must provide a note from their doctor.

Make applicants use a screen name from a list of Sesame Street characters. Then, at least, it will be entertaining when we see a call for free pizza for federal employees from Big Bird.

Include a timer in the submission form: The longer the commenter takes to submit their proposal, the more words they are allowed to use.

Automatically reject submissions three times in a row, thereby enabling only the truly committed to make submissions.

Put breathalyzers on all new computers.

Build a Web site to serve as a template of the Times Sunday magazine. This site will collect all comments made by you throughout your life, and construct a written profile of you based on your digital writing. You will be able to see your profile develop as you comment, and all comments will include a link to this site.

Suggestion boxes

Posted by John Klossner on Feb 16, 2010 at 12:19 PM


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