The Trail: A Daily Diary of Campaign 2008


The Clickocracy

Normalizing the Internet

By Jose Antonio Vargas
When it comes to holding online events, especially via live streaming video, everything and anything can go wrong.

So judging by that rubric alone, President Obama's first online town hall counts as a success -- and a professional coup for Macon Phillips, the White House's new media director, and Katie Jacobs Stanton, the newly minted director of citizen participation. In just two days, more than 93,000 people submitted a total of 104,000 questions and cast 3.5 million votes. (Yes, Mr. President -- that was 3.5 million votes cast, not 3.5 million people who voted.)

If this didn't prove that there's an energized and engaged citizenry willing to reach out online, nothing will.

Yet aside from directly and voluntarily addressing the controversial but popular question of legalizing marijuana -- "No, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy," Obama said with a laugh -- the so-called "online town hall" was simply like watching a press conference streamed via the Web. Which, these days, means most press conferences. The same stock of generalized, predictable questions answered by the same stock of generalized, tried-and-tested policy responses.

Arguably the most animated and substantial exchange was between the president and a longtime teacher from Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia who was seated just a few feet behind him. The teacher asked Obama for his definition of "a charter school" and "an effective teacher."

Still, for many in the online political circles,'s "Open for Questions" feature was a definite step in the right direction. When it was announced that Jared Bernstein, chief economic adviser to Vice President Biden, would be "facilitating" the town hall, some worried that the administration would ask the questions it wanted to ask. Would questions be censored, deemed too inappropriate? So there was much relief when Bernstein started posing most voted-on questions to Obama. That in itself signaled the arrival of something new in our American political life circa 2009: a place for the crowd-sourcing, here-comes-everybody ethos of the Web to be a part of the governing dialogue. The president himself just proved it.

Now it's up to Congress members within their own states and districts to follow suit, according to law school student David Colarusso, who in the past two years has advocated for the use of online town halls. In a blog posting on TechPresident this afternoon, Colarusso announced a new national town hall on CommunityCOUNTS, an open-source platform, that Congress members can use to create an, ongoing, two-way dialogue with their constituents.

"The point of the online town hall today was to bring more people into the discussion, to give people a sense of civic ownership," Colarusso said in a phone interview. "TV just lets you watch the town hall. The people who submitted and voted on questions didn't just watch it, they were a part of it. I hope we see more efforts like this from the White House."

White House officials say they haven't decided whether online town halls will be a regular part of the president's schedule.

Posted at 3:57 PM ET on Mar 26, 2009  | Category:  The Clickocracy
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I couldnt participate because I cant get broadband in my area. The phone company has no plans to improve that either. We need the government to push them to get everybody high speed net.

Posted by: waawaazaire | March 27, 2009 3:28 AM

Today you can correct "Big Brother Obama" tomorrow the "Thought Police" will correct "YOU"

VJ Machiavelli

Posted by: VJMachiavelli1 | March 27, 2009 2:50 AM

For over a year and a half, I've been trying to call attention to the fact that these type of efforts result in the weakest questions rising to the top. The type of efforts are little more than shams that allow politicians to get off scot-free while pretending to be listening to their constituents.

See a list of past shams - and a better way to do things - here:

Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | March 26, 2009 11:02 PM

I really liked this format. When I think about other communicator presidents, people like JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, it seems to me they spoke "to" us. Obama seems to speak "with" us. His speaking also involves some listening without the press or congresspeople as intermediaries.

Sarah Palin trashed Obama because he had been a community organizer. I think that part of his resume might be one of the best things about his presidency. He seems to be able to involve the people more than any other president in my 67-year lifetime.

Posted by: tinyjab40 | March 26, 2009 7:45 PM

"It does has a Big Brother ring to it.

Oh man, we are in deep sht.

Posted by: cintronlourdes | March 26, 2009 6:12 PM"
Ummmm, remember "the patriot act"? it authorizes our government to watch our citizens activity on the internet.

or did you just wake up after an 8 year coma?

Posted by: JRM2 | March 26, 2009 7:40 PM

LOL! Make that "Naive". :-/

Posted by: SAINT---The | March 26, 2009 7:22 PM

This Town Hall was a resounding success! Oh, how I love this man Obama!

Posted by: GeorgHerbet | March 26, 2009 6:30 PM

"Normalizing" the internet?

What the hell does that means?

It does has a Big Brother ring to it.

Oh man, we are in deep sht.

Posted by: cintronlourdes | March 26, 2009 6:12 PM


Do something -- tell your story to the American Civil Liberties Union (link below).

And read in the "comments" section the ongoing account of a journalist in search of his First and Fourth Amendment rights -- free speech and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Then demand that ACLU renew its free speech fight by filing a class-action suit against unconstitutional, rogue government surveillance operations.


"44" blog readers:

My attempted post again has elicited the "held for blog owner" message, despite the fact that WaPo does NOT "hold" posts unless the software detects foul language.

I believe this is yet another example of outright censorship and/or prior restraint on the part of a pervasive government surveillance operation that also manipulates and alters the telecommunications of "targeted" persons.

A variation on the apparently censored post can be found at the following links:

Posted by: scrivener50 | March 26, 2009 5:48 PM

Only the incredibly Nieve and Gullible(O'Bomba's Base!) would swallow this blatantly deceptive stunt!

Culling questions to ACT responsive, while actually promoting agenda;

is ALL this was!


NO SHIBAI President Happa Haole!

Posted by: SAINT---The | March 26, 2009 4:11 PM

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