By Tyler Davis

The U.S. has more than 245 million Internet users, or 78 percent of the population, according to InternetWorldStats.com. Based on the recent election, this means the country has more Internet users than voters, as only 57.5 percent of eligible voters turned out this year, according to a Nov. 8 CNN.com article. Politicians are now beginning to take advantage of the hyper-engaged audience they’ve found online.

California Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-16th) posted a thread on Reddit Nov. 19 asking for suggestions on a bill that would limit the government’s ability to take down websites allegedly involved in criminal activities. She received hundreds of responses and promised to post the bill again once it was fully written.

Following Lofgren’s lead on Nov. 27, California Rep. Darrell Issa (R-49th) posted the full text of a bill on the website that would put a two-year moratorium on Internet legislation such as SOPA and PIPA to allow Internet advocates to gather their resources and lobby against harmful regulation. He asked Reddit users to comment on the bill,  and because Internet legislation has become a controversial issue, Issa’s thread garnered more than 2,500 comments.

Many Reddit users questioned his motives and pointed out that he voted for CISPA, a bill that would make it easier for the government to gather information from websites about their users.

Issa may have been expecting a warm welcome from the Reddit community, but the criticism he received was likely very informative and helpful. Hopefully the harsh reaction to his posts won’t make him shy away from social media in the future. He could gain a lot of credibility by engaging in discussions with Internet users, which could also lead to Internet legislation that actually addresses their concerns.

Issa also did an Ask Me Anything thread on March 7, in which Reddit users asked the congressman questions. President Barack Obama did an AMA in August, but his answers seemed more like canned sound bites than the honest, on-the-spot answers Issa gave in his AMA thread.

Reddit is the perfect platform for a virtual town hall meeting. The website allows any user to post a thread, and other users can vote on it positively or negatively. The threads with the most “upvotes” make it to the front page. Users can also vote on individual comments, so the most popular questions in AMA threads make it to the top and are the most likely to be answered. The whole process is inherently democratic.

The bills crowdsourced on Reddit thus far have centered around Internet regulations because many of the website’s users are knowledgeable and passionate about the subject, but it would be great to see politicians ask people on the Web for input on other issues.

Politicians began using social media as soon as it became an obvious platform for attracting voters, but many of them are approaching it like old media by promoting themselves without listening to their followers.

Most congressional Twitter accounts are ambiguous about whether or not they are ghostwritten by a staff member, according to an Aug. 1 analysis by TheHill.com. Although many of Obama’s tweets are written by his staff, he allegedly writes personal tweets on the account, signing his initials when he does. Composing a tweet doesn’t take much time, and when used properly, it can be a great way for  politicians to engage with their constituents. Politicians should start posting their own tweets, or at least be transparent about who is actually writing them.

The Internet provides a great opportunity for politicians to have real conversations and get feedback from the public. The country just needs politicians who know how to use social media effectively. As the Millennial generation comes of age, hopefully we will elect politicians from our own ranks who know how to use the Internet to listen to the general public and answer its questions. The Internet can be used for more than just self-promotion, pornography and cat pictures, and its potential for democratic community building has just began to be realized.