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Tapping the Constituency, Wiki-Style

Ever wonder why more politicians haven't hopped on the Web 2.0 bandwagon?

Sure, a lot of them have blogs, and President Barack Obama has earned high marks for building a vibrant online community in the campaign and for bringing some of that tech-savvy to the White House.

Still, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing policy, the real essence of the world of Wikipedia -- the so-called "wisdom of the crowds" -- is a rare find indeed.

But it doesn't have to be that way, says Vanessa Scanfeld. Scanfeld and two friends from her undergraduate days at Cornell University founded MixedInk, a collaborative online writing tool that combines the entries from multiple authors and uses a Digg-like voting system to create a finished document.

The MixedInk founders have been meeting with numerous government organizations and nonprofit groups to demonstrate the application and discuss how it could help policy makers build a pipeline to their constituencies.

"The government and advocacy organizations are basically created to help people talk with a single voice, and that's what our tool does," Scanfeld told InternetNews.com.

With the glut of opinions kicking around the Internet, that single voice can be hard to find. For all its successes in democratizing media, the Web 2.0 revolution gave rise to a labyrinth of blogs, Wikis, tweets and profile pages where trying to make yourself heard can seem a little like shouting into a waterfall.

"During the 2004 presidential campaign, we were inspired by the amazing impact the Internet was having on politics," Scanfeld said. "As the blogosphere emerged and evolved out of that, it became a very noisy space."

To get a sense of the scale of that space, Nielsen Online has a buzz-tracking tool called Blogpulse, which analyzes content in blogs throughout the Web. Blogpulse's index recently added its 100 millionth blog.

As the blogosphere continues to swell, Scanfeld describes an atmosphere where because everyone had a voice, no one would be heard, at least not by the decision makers too busy to sift through the cacophony.

"It also became clear that those who would most benefit from listening to them ... couldn't get a clear message," she said.

MixedInk attempts to get around that problem by bringing as many voices as possible into the creation of a document. Just like a Wiki, users can write and submit their own content or edit the work of others. The tool democratizes the process by making everyone's entries available to view and enabling users to vote them up or down in much the same fashion as Digg determines the most popular news stories.

Launched in beta earlier this month, MixedInk partnered with Slate magazine and enlisted its community to draft the inaugural address they would have liked to hear from Obama on Jan. 20.

In an experiment last year, Netroots, a coalition of liberal bloggers, used the MixedInk tool to draft a Democratic policy platform, which they submitted for consideration at the party's nominating convention.

Next page: Reaching out to Congress.