This program would systematically study the emerging phenomena, determine the sources of success or failure, and disseminate best practices. The payoffs are large enough to warrant an intense national effort akin to NASA's space program or the National Institutes of Health.Some clips from the letter:
Health discussion groups have long been one of the Internet's success stories. Now, clever entrepreneurs are exploring new social participation ideas with projects such as the www.PatientsLikeMe.com Web site, where users offer their medical experiences in the hope of learning about treatment outcomes from one another. At the same time, these users are building a remarkable resource for medical research and discovery. Physicians have already discussed 30,000 cases at www.sermo.com, where they can offer insights about innovative treatments as well as detect unusual disease patterns. Large corporations also recognize the opportunities and are inviting users to store their medical histories in the Microsoft Health Vault or at Google Health.
Although social networking plays only a small role in national security, community safety could be enormously improved by expanding resident reporting systems, such as www.WatchJeffersonCounty.net, which collects reports of unusual behaviors. These reports provide important clues for civic officials to prevent crimes, control teenage gangs, or simply fix potholes.
The micro-blogging tool Twitter is now rapidly spreading, as users from Orange County fire-fighters to Mumbai police post their 140-character messages about where they are and what they are doing.
The benefits of social media participation are well understood by Obama's staff--during the campaign, they engaged 4 million donors and volunteers. To replicate their success, a National Initiative for Social Participation could stimulate effective collaborations in many professions, restore community social capital, and coordinate national service projects. The challenge is to understand what motivates participants, such as altruism, reputation, or community service. Researchers would have to develop fresh strategies that increased the conversion rates from readers to contributors from the currently typical 100 to 1 to much higher rates. Getting contributors to collaborate for ambitious efforts and to become leaders or mentors are further challenges. Coping with legitimate dangers such as privacy violations, misguided rumors, malicious vandalism, and infrastructure destruction or overload all demand careful planning and testing of potential solutions.
The huge research effort required for a National Initiative for Social Participation would tap the skills of computer scientists to build scalable and reliable systems, interface designers to accommodate diverse user needs, and social scientists to study successes and failures. The risks are substantial, but the payoffs could be enormous.