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, WhiteHouse.gov'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
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