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Engineering a better virtual town hall

BY Editors | Friday, March 27 2009

President Obama and his new media team are rightfully receiving kudos for their inaugural online town hall. Roundup at Personal Democracy Forum. It's a brave step forward in a system that's naturally (and understandably) conservative. Because it was a pilot, there's room to improve, as the first commenter on the linked PDF post points out. Moving forward, the new media team should focus on re-tuning the technology to hit the core values and purposes of town halls and citizen participation:

1. Patch vulnerabilities. Whether or not you believe legalizing marijuana is a top-echelon issue facing the country, most of the top-rated MJ questions had little or passing relevance to the categories they dominated. The last category of question listed, "Budget," became a veritable honeypot for swarms of legalization advocates (the first seven of the top ten questions were on that topic), with only the addition of the word "tax" differentiating it from similar questions voted up in the "health care" and "green jobs" categories. I'm inclined to believe this was an authentic grassroots movement, but astroturf campaigns could easily engineer bot or mechanical turk attacks. What's particularly pernicious about crowd-sourced moderation is that the campaign wins either way: at a minimum, thousands of Americans will be forced to read their submissions, even if only to vote them down.

2. Nuance the moderation: I voted on some 40+ questions and quickly began to realize that a straight up/down/abuse vote wasn't capturing my opinion. For one thing, it became clear that if I wanted my interests to rise, I should vote against everything else (much like the way voters game multi-choice elections with bullet voting). It's important for the system designers to realize that they are developing a game -- a set of rules that determines winners and losers. For another, I found I had more specific things to say about each one: that a question was off-topic, or didn't really ask a question, or was too generic, etc. In fact, I guess what I really wanted was:

3. Allow interaction: If the White House wants real civic engagement, it shouldn't be conceived as spokes on a single hub (citizen -> President). The beauty of the Internet, like democracy, is that it's many-to-many. I recognize that allowing citizens to talk to each other opens huge and difficult problems that make the deluge of posts demanding to see the President's birth certificate seem trivial by comparison. Perhaps it's up to civil society to pick up where Open for Questions leaves off -- given enough lead time, citizen associations can build their own online events off the town hall to host more robust discussions that can't happen in the Presidential site. Still, this experiment is one of the closest things to a true public commons on the Web we've seen so far, and it'd be a shame if the only way to run it were a state monopoly that shunts citizen discussion off to private spaces.

4. More personality: One of the strengths of the town hall format is connecting abstract public policy to the lives of real, visible people. The format of Open for Questions (very limited space, no nuanced voting), however, favored generic questions that failed to give a strong sense of the person asking and her specific circumstances are. I felt a very strong difference in affect between Obama's interaction with online questions (which was practically a press conference) and his live, in-person questions (which felt much warmer and more personal). This is, in part, because there was no person Obama had to make eye contact with and get verbal or nonverbal feedback from.

5. ...Or focus on the Internet's strengths. Scratch that last suggestion. Maybe nothing will ever beat the face-to-face conversation for warmth and authenticity. Why not focus the online town hall on the very kinds of questions that town halls are terrible at: those best answered nonverbally (whether numbers, charts, or time-lapse illustrations) or which require the President to draw on his advisors and not just the talking points he's memorized. (We want the President to manage a team, not to be a one-man savant, after all). Stretch the new media team's capabilities and see if they can create interactive charts, videos, or even games to frame or illustrate the President and his team's responses.

Finally, let us acknowledge what has just happened: President Obama and his team have engaged over 93,000 people in an online town hall conversation. I hope this is just the first step towards an even more robust system of citizen engagement.

(Reposted from video vidi visum: virtual)