Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama's First Online Town Hall: Drama-Free OKness

President Obama's experiment Thursday with an otherwise traditional town hall format flecked with questions posted and voted on at was a useful experiment with interactivity. But it was a relatively small step forward, and the online crowd did not provide much of a disruptive alternative to topics Obama certainly would have been asked about anyway.

How did the tech president do? Fine. He genuinely took popular questions and he certainly took many of the top-rated ones. His answers were long, which meant he took only five of the 104,000 questions submitted and, more important, only a tiny fraction of the approximately 1,000 questions that the public seemed truly enthusiastic about.

But it wasn't exactly as if he took penetrating, unanticipated questions from "Open for Questions," which the administration set up two days ago to solicit questions in advance. In fact the only subject that might not have otherwise been addressed came from an organized campaign to ask Obama his position on legalizing marijuana.

Obama obeyed the spirit (and letter) of the event by entertaining the question while blunting the troll effort that had put it to him: "No, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy," he said to laughter in the room.

Other than that bit of comedy relief how exactly would it have differed if this town hall were to be entirely scripted by the White House? They would have touched many of the same subjects — health care, veterans, outsourcing — and Obama would have given his regular stump points. That's more or less what happened.

But he gets credit for effort and breaking new ground. As we've written about extensively here, using the internet is a sophisticated way to boost democracy is actually pretty tough. So one of the metrics to use here is: Will this experiment get us closer to an administration that uses the internet in an effective way to communicate and get input from people, or will the experiment flame up in such a way that it sets that cause back?

My instinct is that the former is what happened today. The Obama team got to test the software and the model; we all got to test the feedback loop. Buzz will fade if the next town hall is non-interactive; but for now I think it increases. So I'm judging today as a small advance that may lead to better things to come.

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