Kommons Founder Sees Q&A Site as Way to Hold the Powerful Accountable

Social networking services have no doubt opened the lines of communication between citizens and public figures, but Cody Brown thinks they fall short in fostering two-way conversations. Politicians can easily ignore a voter’s question on Twitter. And there’s no easy way to chime in or track who asked what.

So Brown and former New York University classmate Kate Ray created Kommons. The site, which has been in beta mode since September, enables people to pose questions to anyone who has a Twitter account and to provide answers that aren’t limited to 140 characters.

“We’re trying to build public leverage from the ground up on every question,” Brown said in a phone interview. “Our goal is to be a fair place to ask and answer questions from anyone in the world.”

So far, Kommons has about 100 users. They’re basically an extension of Brown and Ray’s networks — mostly journalists who are interested in technology. But the site shows promise as a reporting tool, as a place where knowledge is shared, and as a way to lessen the public’s reliance on the media to pick up and answer its questions.

Familiarity of Twitter, with room for deeper exchanges

Kommons has some of the same features as Twitter. When users ask a question, they can opt to send out an automatically generated tweet of the question, which includes the Twitter name of the person to whom the question is directed. Others can “back,” or support, a question and tweet that, too.

“All we’re doing is making the question harder to ignore and expanding the number of people who are seeing it,” said Brown, who graduated from NYU in May.

This integration with Twitter allows users to tap into their existing networks and draw more attention to questions.

“If I already have a few thousand followers on my Twitter account, I can use that as leverage when I get excited by someone else’s question,” said Brown, who’s also the founder of NYU Local. “We’ve met with journalists who are very interested in integrating this into some of their reporting styles, specifically people who are prolific bloggers. They’ve spent the past few years gaining recognition on Twitter and they can use this to ignite their base.”

Currently, the only way to be invited to use the site is to have a Kommons user ask you a question. Brown said this will change once the more public version of the site launches.

Asking good questions, sharing knowledge with others

A small group of journalists has been using Kommons to ask one another questions; some have been answered, but many haven’t.

One user, for instance, asked FiveThirtyEight a question that went unanswered for a month. (It’s not likely to be answered, considering that it was about plans for data visualizations leading up to the election.) And nine people had backed a question to Clay Shirky that was left unanswered for about a month. He responded to it on Tuesday morning after this story was published.

(I should note that it took me about a month to answer a question from Publish2′s Greg Linch. It’s not that I didn’t want to answer it; it’s just that I didn’t have much of an incentive to answer it sooner.)

Some of those questions, though, have led to thoughtful responses on topics such as covering a live television event and entrepreneurial journalism. Rachel Sklar, Mediate’s editor at large, responded in detail to Brown’s question about what the New York City media community was like before Twitter.

In a blog post about her Kommons experience, Sklar said she spent an hour crafting her response. She referred to Kommons as a “sort of brilliant” site that will “sneakily make you blog for free.”

Seeing what interests voters & how politicians respond

As Kommons expands, Brown said, it will be more focused on politics. He’s talking with various conservative and liberal bloggers about possible partnerships and said he’d also like to partner with news organizations.

He wouldn’t say when these partnerships would be announced or when the next version of Kommons will launch. But he said he hopes Kommons will ultimately enable news consumers and members of the Fifth Estate to seek answers themselves rather than relying on the media. Journalists could then turn to the site to get a better sense of what voters want to know from politicians.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that a user’s questions will be answered. And if a political figure doesn’t have a Twitter account or has a ghost writer, he or she may not even know the question exists.

“We know not every question is going to get answered, but we always think there’s more we can do to get that question answered,” Brown said. He recently added backers’ avatars to each question to draw attention to them and make them more personal.

Striving to stand out among other question & answer sites

Kommons is not the only site that features questions from the public, and Twitter has also been used to pose questions to politicians.

Quora is a similar site that lists questions and answers on topics such as food, cars, and even journalism. Unlike Kommons, Quora lets users edit responses and questions.

One of Brown’s challenges is figuring out how to show users the value of the site. Gannett Digital’s Ryan Sholin, who has posed and answered questions on Kommons, said he thinks the site has potential, but he isn’t quite sure how to best use it.

“Right now, Kommons looks a bit like Quora to me: It’s full of insiders poking at each other, but it doesn’t have the friendly trappings of a place I’d expect the general public to hang out,” Sholin told me via e-mail.

“I can see the use case for reporters trying to get the public to ‘back’ a question to an elected official … but there are other places to do this right now — like Facebook — that are already populated by all three groups in that relationship.”

Other sites such as Yoosk and 10Questions.com enable citizens to ask politicians questions, acting as a kind of online town hall meeting. Yoosk Founder and Chairman Tim Hood said 15 government ministers and 100 elected representatives worldwide have answered questions, as well as several other public figures. David Miliband, the UK’s former foreign secretary, has answered 41 questions.

In the lead-up to the midterm elections, citizens used Personal Democracy Forum’s 10Questions.com to pose questions to candidates, with the goal of having the candidates respond to the top questions with substantial answers rather than sound bites. 10Questions.com partnered with news organizations on the project.

The biggest difference between Kommons, Yoosk and 10Questions.com, Brown said, is that Kommons users have a much bigger pool of people to ask questions to — anyone on Twitter. “This means that we are set up for classic activist use cases — someone without power challenging someone who has power — but we are also set up to go sideways.”

As Kommons grows, Brown said he hopes the site will enrich journalists’ reporting and understanding of certain subjects while giving everyday people the power to pose questions that they’ve traditionally relied on journalists to ask.

“I think getting a big public figure to answer a question is one of the hardest things a journalist does and what the real masters do really well,” Brown said. “This is just a new platform and opportunity to really test the limits of that.”

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