Change certainly came to Washington Tuesday, but change.gov did not. President Obama's former transition Web site is now defunct, with a note sending visitors to whitehouse.gov. The official presidential Web address relaunched as a shiny social-media hub at 12:01 p.m.—even before Obama took his delayed oath into office.
Immediately, the twitterati and tumblr set were abuzz over the site, noting how similar it looked to the campaign's previous sites (with its twilight blue background, Gotham font and a YouTube video highlighting the president-elect's train journey this past weekend) and marveling at the new chief executive's continued technological prowess. But it's worth wondering how many of these observers had ever actually looked at President Bush's site. It also had news updates (much like the blog on Obama's White House site), an "Interactive White House," a newsroom-like "Setting the Record Straight" feature, and slideshows—and oh yes, that famous Barney cam.
So the real difference is that the new site glosses with the buzzwords of social media and pristine politics: transparency! Participation! RSS feed! All these look good on paper (or, in this case, on screen) but delivering on the many promises won't be easy—making the Web site a near-perfect metaphor for the entire Obama presidency. The premier blog post, written by the director of new media, Macon Phillips, introduces a framework full of features, few of which are ready to use. Things that do work, like the slideshows, are rife with bugs. Early Tuesday evening, Obama's new site still referred to him as the president-elect in some places, and a link to a gallery of first families shows you pictures of presidential pets. "[Phillips's] first message was just about openness," says Rex Sorgatz, an online media consultant who runs fimoculous.com. "But you can't just crack open a wiki and say, 'Go at it.' Even forums or comments won't produce anything meaningful. You need to have a filter in order for productive discussions to rise to the top."
Sorgatz and other Web experts agree that the new site has the framework to accomplish this, but that much will depend on how effectively Obama's new media team develops applications. One plan announced by the White House is to let the public review and comment on non-emergency legislation for five days before the president votes on it. Another allows readers to suggest their own priorities for government, which other readers can vote on, with the most popular plans bubbling up to the Oval Office. "Everything's worth a shot," Sorgatz says. "But most likely, the things that will work on the site will be more targeted."
If nothing else, the site should break traffic records of previous administrations, potentially serving as a powerful communication device. The reason? Obama's weekly video address could become the modern equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats, and the blog could become the first place for political news, much the same way the campaign's Tumblr feed chronicled the inauguration, or text messaging got us through campaign season. The crisp design also makes it useful to access Obama's agenda and administration (now, if only there were photographs of America's newest dignitaries). "I would hope he turns it into a hub of citizen information," says social media expert Jason Kottke. "If it's something that's actually of use to people and to the government, then it could be the next 311," he adds, referencing the popular telephone hotlines that some cities have set up for non-emergency information.
To succeed, the site will have to roll out features slowly, combining the best of social networking with the administration's presumably limited manpower to moderate comments or read in-boxes bulging with e-mail. It will be interesting to see how many resources the president will put into the digital realm. In the meantime, Kottke believes it would be advisable to hire hundreds of people to help run the site; others suggest the administration start by treating the site like the beginnings of any social network—including profiles, encouraging replies from users and imbuing a sense of responsibility and peer review. "Obama has indicated that he wants government to be more two-ways," Kottke says. "So the hope is the Internet can be used to accomplish that." To prepare for this tech renaissance, all the user-generated content on whitehouse.gov has been licensed under a creative commons agreement (which allows for re-posting around the Internet). Also, in a measure of tech-transparency, one index file that restricts certain content from search engines is nearly empty. The Bush site had 2,400 such exceptions.
But as Wired.com points out, it'll be difficult to win the battle against Washington Web paranoia: The First Amendment's limits on restricting speech could be read as an argument against filtering comments—a comments section wasn't even built into Tuesday's launch of the new site. When updating expensive software, the administration might be hindered by Federal contracting laws that delay purchases. Even external linking might cause trouble, much like the time when Bush's onetime Internet director linked to Redcross.org in posting a Katrina speech. The reason? A government ban on endorsing products or organizations.
But the biggest difficulty may come from the Presidential Records Act, which requires that all written communication be preserved. We won't even try to guess how many gigabytes of data Obama's site may add to that record. At least there will be some new jobs … at the National Archives.