It seems the new Obama government in the US is using social networking to include the American people in governing. In that it’s jumping on a wagon that’s becoming crowded by businesses desperate to hold “real” conversations with their customers. Unfortunately, as is too common today, it’s a nice idea, badly executed. Like many businesses today, the Obama team created an online suggestion box for ideas, and then allowed visitors to rate them. Tens of thousands threw in their thoughts. This creates an illusion of inclusion, allowing people to believe they really can affect outcomes. It also plays well into the new concept of open ideation or innovation.. But most open suggestion boxes are too vague and inconclusive to be more than just feel-good marketing exercises. Ideation needs direction. Because there is no defined purpose, asking someone for generic comments or ideas is an open door for the promotion of popular causes and group think. For example, one of the most frequent suggestions for Obama was to legalize marijuana – which is hardly the most pressing problem facing the U.S. today. Asking something specific, like how can we make our widget work better for you, will generate far more useful responses. Also, like many businesses today, Obama-ites used a rating system to determine the “best” ideas. Presumably, this plays into the wisdom of crowds thinking. This wisdom is good for mathematical averaging, but is dubious in terms of effectiveness. Online ranking systems are too easily hijacked by special interests. The CBC once tried something similar, and the result was that the “biggest” issue Canada faced was abortion. Too often, open suggestion tools create ideas that may be popular but are irrelevant. Consulting the customer or holding conversations are wonderful concepts. But without purpose, social networking is just a waste of time and resources.