Town hall meetings go virtual

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty plans to host his first “Facebook town hall” meeting this coming Wednesday to discuss Republican strategy and the 2010 elections. According to the article (from the CNN Political Ticker), a Pawlenty spokesman said “Gov. Pawlenty wants to use the latest technology and social networking tools to connect with more Americans and talk about the issues facing our country.”

This isn’t the first time Pawlenty has used social media for constituency outreach. Pawlenty met with bloggers during a “happy hour” at the Political Action Conference and is active on Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. On Facebook, Pawlenty has over 31,000 fans.

Apparently, hosting a Facebook town hall is becoming increasingly common. But how exactly can a town hall meeting be conducted online? From my knowledge, the point of town hall meetings is to meet with a set of geographically defined “local” citizens to discuss the issues of most importance to them. This element of “local” loses meaning in a social media context. One of the defining features of the social media landscape is the lack of geographical boundaries and difficulty reaching target audiences in a specific geographical area. The Pawlenty spokesperson said “This will be like a regular town hall, except we’ll be able to take questions from around the country thanks to new online tools.” To me, “town hall meeting” is not the correct way to describe this event. This is a forum, open to anyone from around the country to participate, not necessarily those from Pawlenty’s state of Minnesota.

Are these online town hall meetings a good idea? Does social media really allow government representatives to have two-way conversations with their citizens? What sort of pitfalls could arise using social media in politics? Will a social media presence create transparency for public officials and breed trust among those they represent? Is building a presence online done authentically with purpose or is it done merely to follow the crowd? These questions should be at the forefront of any politician’s mind when deciding whether or not to use social media.

It will be interesting to see how the Pawlenty town hall goes. Do you think it will be a success? Here is just one comment from the article:

“Going to predict an EPIC fail. Technology to deliver a message or allow someone to express an idea is a great concept – a way to get reach young voters. But real time interaction?
You have seen the real town hall’s and their complete disregard for any civility, yes? Now, take out the face to face interaction or ability to remove the unruly from the room.
1. He will get trapped in a corner.
2. He will be verbally abused
3. Nothing constructive will come out except for more divison.”

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