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White House Plans a Social Web Startup

Will a Quora clone really help the White House connect with citizens?
January 24, 2011

Web startups with a good idea are soon followed by clones trying to emulate their success. But social Q&A site Quora may be the first one to be inspire the White House to borrow some ideas.

New York entrepreneur Anil Dash blogged late last week to say that the White House had asked for his help to build “sort of their own Quora” that would be used by government staffers to encourage informed discussion around all kinds of policy. Citizens and officials would use the site to pose questions about policy and discuss its ins and outs.

Dash’s main concern–similar to some discussed in my article on Quora–is that the community on the site will need to be carefully managed to produce good content. The biggest potential problem, it seems to me, is the risk of the site turning into a battleground for campaign groups who swamp the site with questions or answers on their issue of interest.

The White House Quora–dubbed ExpertNet for now–may be an example of something we will see a lot more of: attempts to build online social tools with politics in mind. Twitter, Facebook and others are now well established parts of campaigning and everyday political life. The temptation to build web sites that enhance the experience of social web politicking is obvious.

Kommons, a startup from New York, is another example. It provides a way for users of Twitter to publicly direct questions at other users, and is aimed at providing a way to keep public figures to account. For example, I could pose a question to @BarackObama and that account would be notified. If more people used Kommons to back the question, more notifications would flow, perhaps enough to earn a response. One example is this Kommons question asking Gawker Media why they hadn’t informed individual users that their passwords had been compromised, which Gawker responded to.

ExpertNet, Kommons and Quora all have one challenge in common though: competing against the established giants of Facebook and Twitter for users’ time.

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DREAM VENDING MACHINE I feed it coins and watch the spring coil back,the clunk of a vacuum-packed, foil-wrappeddream dropping into the tray. It dispenses all kinds of dreams—bad dreams, good dreams,short nightmares to stave off worse ones, recurring dreams with a teacake marshmallow center.Hardboiled caramel dreams to tuck in your cheek,a bag of orange dreams…

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"It was in the newspaper, but the towers fell the next day, and what I’d done was quickly lost."

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