CBC’s Wish List: experiment or disaster?

There’s a story on the Globe and Mail site about the CBC’s Great Canadian Wish List project, in which the broadcaster set up a Facebook group and asked Canadians to vote on what they wanted for the country, with the winner to be announced this weekend in honour of Canada Day (if you have a Facebook account — and who doesn’t by now — the group can be found here).

The story notes that the project is seen by some as having been hijacked by conservative religious groups and turned into a debate on issues like abortion and gay marriage. But is that really the case? And even if it is, does that mean the experiment was a failure?

snipshot_e4h1tgvfn5p.jpgThe top three wishes as of Thursday were: 1) to ban abortion; 2) that Canada remain pro-choice and 3) for a spiritual revival in our nation (below that were wishes including “restore the traditional definition of marriage,” as well as “I wish tuition fees would be either lowered or eliminated,” and “it’s time for drastic measures to save our environment.”) The group had 18,572 members and 546 discussion topics, with more than 5,360 comments posted on the group’s “wall.” The top three wish groups have from 4,000 to 8,000 members. The story also mentions a piece of commentary by Elaine Corden on The Tyee, a B.C.-based website, in which the author criticizes the CBC for launching the contest, and says it is “laughable at best, contemptible at worst.”

Corden says the fact that the wish list was hijacked shows that the broadcaster’s attempts at populism are inherently flawed. “It’s like when Sanjaya fans perverted the American Idol vote,” she says, except that “instead of watching talented singers being kicked off a crappy reality show, I’m watching state-sanctioned homophobia.”

Describing the CBC’s Wish List as state-sanctioned homophobia is a little over the top in my view — especially since the second wish is that Canada remain pro-choice. There is less than a 10-per-cent difference between the two.

Still, there’s no question that the CBC project became a magnet for a variety of interest groups, and it’s not the first online survey to do that. Several commenters on the Globe story note other contests that have been hijacked, including Time magazine’s poll on “Person of the Millennium” and a poll in Hungary that was ultimately hijacked by comedian Stephen Colbert. One commenter even mentions the Globe’s own polls on various topics, which occasionally are influenced by political parties and interest groups.

But does that make what the CBC did worthless or unwise? No. An interesting experiment? Yes.

If you look at the wishes in the list, once you get past the top three there are plenty of other wishes that got large numbers of votes, including wishes that have to do with the environment, getting Canada to help with aid to Darfur, pulling troops out of Afghanistan, and recycling Tim Horton’s cups. Thousands of Canadians got to make suggestions and vote for the issues they care about.

To me, focusing on the top two or three misses the larger point. Yes, religious groups clearly feel strongly about the abortion issue, and they obviously tried to get their supporters to join and vote — but the second wish more than balances that. Why is that not a valuable contribution to the debate? The whole point of “social” media is to let anyone who wants to say something have an opportunity to do so, including people with unpleasant views, or those whose opinions we disagree with.