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By Kate O’Hara

Pop quiz: what did the 2010 federal election and Seinfeld have in common?

You could draw any number of similarities between short-statured men, annoying laughs, close talkers and oddball characters who show up unannounced in your loungeroom each evening, but for OurSay founder and Chief Operating Officer Matthew Gordon, it really comes down to not much at all.

“For us it was clearly a Seinfeld election – a show about nothing,” he says.

“Political and media engagement was in the order of the lowest common denominator. It’s not surprising that the Australian community didn’t choose a government in the end, and just left Gillard and the others to work it out.”

Spurred into action even before the campaigning machine cranked into gear, Gordon and a group of keen young entrepreneurs established OurSay, an organisation intent on improving political engagement and community interaction through social media.

With just two years under its belt, OurSay has already carved a small but significant niche as a player on Australia’s political scene, hosting around 25 forums including the first ever Hangout with the Prime Minister.

In its latest partnership effort with the University of Melbourne and Fairfax Media, OurSay recently launched the Citizens’ Agenda, a collaborative crowd-sourcing project which aims to connect with voting communities around Australia and analyse the impact of that engagement. Gordon says it will sort out what issues really matter.

“We thought rather than just having a leaders’ debate like Gillard and Abbott did during the last election, why don’t all candidates have a debate?” he says.

“Using the OurSay methodology, people will post and vote for questions. Those top rating questions will be debated in the community forum, down at the local RSL or town hall. We want to see whether the terms are debated on issues the community has raised compared to the issues the political parties raise through polling and focus groups.”

Researchers and academics from the University’s Centre for Public Policy and Centre for Advanced Journalism will analyse the Citizens’ Agenda as it gets underway in the coming months.

“The advantage of this sort of project is that you’ve got six brilliant minds looking at your product and testing whether it’s going to make a difference or not,” Gordon says.

“Have we changed or increased the level of political engagement in the election? Who’s included and not included? What’s the content analysis of media? Did the headlines change based on what we were able to achieve? The last election was a farce, let’s make this one about something.”

Gordon’s not the only one disenchanted with the direction of political activity and media reporting in Australia. Dr Margaret Simons, founding director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and industry expert has high hopes for the Citizens’ Agenda and its impact on the country’s “dull political reporting”.

She says politicians are becoming so managed by public relations teams that we barely see any real policy debates these days.

Dr Margaret Simons. Image: supplied

“Instead, we’re seeing a lot of personality-based politics, a sort of presidential system where it seems to be more about the leader than the policies. It’s a shame – it leads to a less informed electorate.

“For a long time I’ve been following the ideas of people like Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis and key scholars on journalism futures which I find very compelling – optimistic – but very compelling. Rosen had the idea that part of the role of media is not only to highlight problems but also to be an engaged citizen in helping a community find answers to problems.

“That idea was over-taken by the internet and his modern iteration was what he calls the Citizens’ Agenda, and that once the agenda has been determined, media should pursue it regardless of what the politicians want to talk about.”

Politics and social media have certainly strengthened ties in the past few years – take Barak Obama’s online savvy and his 19 million Twitter followers for example – but the impact of such engagement has yet to be captured and measured.

Dr Simons, a canny Twitter user and observer of social media happenings herself, is optimistic about the project and its positive impact on political engagement in Australia. She hopes the research findings will inform political media reporting well beyond next year’s federal election.

“I often say that we’re living through an era of innovation, equivalent to that which was caused by the printing press, which led people being able to identify with a nation rather than just their clan or village. It made modern democratic forms possible,” she says.

“Now if I’m right, and we’re living through the equivalent innovation now, we have to expect democracy to change, because democracy has always been, to some extent, technologically determined.

“In both journalism and political science there is a lot of hope that social media can serve to improve civic engagement, perhaps improve politics and perhaps lead to a more connected journalism; we might actually get some coverage of politics as though it matters rather than as spectator sport.”

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