Thursday, November 13, 2008

It's not all about new technology (part 1)

I'm very excited to see how Obama's administration is going to use new media technology to revolutionize the way the president governs - and make no mistake, "revolution" could turn out to be an understatement if they pull this off properly. But reading through the lists of suggestions that have been popping up across the web, it occurs to me that there are a lot of old media technologies that could be used in concert with new media.

Fireside chats on YouTube and network TV
Without a doubt, it is time to move the president's radio address into the modern age. How many people are even aware that the president gives a weekly radio address? And even if you knew, have you ever listened to one? I sure haven't.

The common suggestion has been to record a brief video clip and post it to YouTube and the soon-to-be-revamped This is a good start, but why not put it in primetime every week? People could get to work on Friday, and in their discussions of Jim and Pam's love life on The Office, they might also talk about Obama's latest address to the public and what it means for them. And of course, if you missed it on TV, you can catch it online.

This also addresses one of the major challenges of a tech approach to governing, which is that anything you do on the web reaches a very skewed audience of Americans (haven't done the research, but I'm guessing it skews white, young, wealthy and well-educated. Please correct me in the comments if you've got some facts on this). By putting it on TV, you reach a range of people who would never seek out this content on the web, like my parents, for instance.

This idea has similar correlaries for other forms of old media. Why shouldn't politicians contribute an op-ed piece to a major newspaper explaining their thinking and making their case directly to the people? Al Gore and John Kerry have both contributed great op-eds recently, along with non-politician Warren Buffet. While it's obviously important for the press to do their job in analyzing and verifying a politician's view, I think a key facet of openness is creating opportunities for government to speak directly to the people - in a way where the people will listen.

Real life town hall meetings
I saw a flyer on the MBTA recently announcing a series of town hall workshops open to the public to provide input on the future of Boston public transportation. I wasn't able to make it, but it sure got me thinking about what I wanted to see from Boston transit, because I believed that my input would be truly valued, or at least heard.

It's a totally different ballgame to collect input on an initiative at a national level, but the idea of face-to-face interaction can still go a long way toward making people feel like their views count. I could imagine tying together a web community with a real-life forum, so that people can begin the discussion online and vote for issues or ideas, and then choose a representative to bring that idea to a face-to-face forum (which would certainly be recorded and streamed to the web).

Would you be more likely to participate in an online discussion if you knew that someone from your community could be sent to Washington to represent your view directly? You could target the forums by different demographic groups - one for college students, one for seniors, one for urban residents, one for rural residents, etc.

The end result might look a lot like the town hall meetings that presidents have held in the past, but who really believes that those are open, honest and unscripted? It could be a totally different story if you got to participate in the discussion leading up to the town hall, and then continue the discussion afterwards. By combining old with new, you make the town hall more open, and you make the online discussion more potent.

I'll continue this idea in a later post, but I'm interested to hear your reactions to these ideas, and suggestions for how old approaches can be amplified and enhanced by new media.

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