Friday, March 27, 2009

Why Obama's Online Town Hall Meeting was a Wasted Opportunity...

The first "YouTube Presidency" gained a lot of traction yesterday as President Barack Obama held an online town hall meeting that was open to the public. If you were to believe the media coverage, you might think that this was a revolutionary event ushering in a new era for democracy. But is that really the case?

Hosted on, individual citizens had been able to post questions for the two days leading up to the town hall meeting, and people could then vote for which questions they most wanted answered. The President and his staff generally did an admirable job of answering the top questions people had voted for, including a now notorious one on whether marijuana should be legalized "in order to save the economy".

Kudos to the president for honoring the agreed upon voting system - regardless of how silly it may have seemed at that moment :-)

To be sure, this was a stark improvement on past attempts to integrate Web 2.0 strategies into political broadcasts. I've previously covered how, for example, the CNN-YouTube Debate during the presidential primaries failed America by allowing a small handful of media elites to filter which questions should be asked. While most questions weren't exactly covering unexpected topics, at least this online town hall meeting avoided letting the media elites act as gatekeepers, and instead granted the public power over question selection.

There are clearly many reasons why some type of filter is necessary in online political forums. As Evan Ratliff observed, "comments are typically the intellectual equivalent of truck-stop graffiti". The Obama team rightfully fears having "zero control over the potentially critical or embarrassing response videos that users would post".

However, this online town hall meeting was still a wasted opportunity. Despite the open format, it nevertheless remained, ultimately, a generic "Q & A" session, failing to include follow-up questions, and fell far short of being revelatory. Advocates who believe the internet can be a democratizing force are hoping that the president will go much further. As Dan Froomkin suggests, government officials would be wise to embrace "wiki culture" and create "public collaborative workspaces".

The core issue here is to what extent political forums ought to be interactive. Our system of Representative Democracy (as opposed to Direct Democracy) has served us well for over two centuries, but as new technologies make Direct Democracy more logistically possible, we, as a society, will need to decide to what extent they are worth pursuing.

In those terms, the president's online town hall meeting was a step in the right direction, but he still has a long way to go.


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