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In Defense of the Twitter Town Hall

On Wednesday, Umair Haque, well-known columnist and blogger for Harvard Business Review, shared a few thoughts on the then about-to-go-live Twitter town hall with President Barack Obama: AskObama Is a Meaningless Marketing Stunt

His piece read roughly like this (selectively paraphrased for illustrative purposes):

“… a tiny dose of digital dumbification… grumble grumble… a cynical exercise… perception over reality… one-off marketing stunt… grumble… questions my pet hamster knows will probably never have a hope in Hades of having an impact on anything …”

And (quoted verbatim):

“… without a working, viable, lasting, participatory link to the who, what, when, where, and how of policy-making, the event is just that: a one-off marketing stunt, with little enduring significance or meaning.”

So I guess it’s fair to assume Mr. Haque’s feelings about this event were rather, shall we say, mixed.

While Haque’s post brings up a number of valid questions about the state and future of our democracy and the role technology might play in it, his criticism of the event itself is based on completely unrealistic expectations and thus misses the point.

I only managed to watch about twenty minutes of the event. From what I can tell it seemed like an o.k. town hall meeting, so I couldn’t help but leave this short comment:

Wednesday’s event had been announced and advertised as a “Twitter town hall”. Nothing more, nothing less. Town hall meetings, whether online or offline, are informal public meetings: anyone can attend, the convener shares some information, and sometimes participants get to voice their questions or concerns.

Town hall meetings are only one of many tools and processes that can be applied to engage the public in government decision making. Whether they are the right choice depends on the public participation goals that are being pursued. For example, town hall meetings can work well to help inform the public but perform rather poorly as tool for collaborative problem solving or deliberation.

As necessary as deepening or reinventing our democracy may be, this event was not intended to get us there. It should be judged on its own merits: Was it accessible? Was the process by which questions were selected transparent and fair? Were the answers helpful and factually accurate? How did it compare to similar previous efforts (e.g. the Facebook town hall we saw in April)? Etc.

On a final note, it seems a bit unfair to not at least mention Open Government in this context and the various participatory experiments the Obama administration has carried out over the past couple of years. Now, we can talk a great deal about how that’s been going and whether the approach is bold enough or not, but overall I wouldn’t call their efforts disingenuous (as the post seems to imply).

Agreed, this wasn’t democracy’s equivalent of the moon landing. Rather, it’s the equivalent of teaching a toddler how to count so she can grow up to become an astronaut (destined to fly to the moon and beyond). Baby steps!

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