What is the use of all these political sites anyway? Action on Townhall.com and HillaryClinton.com

When you think about how difficult it is to change anything beyond the immediate circle of your everyday life, I would say that every little helps when it comes to empower people to act as citizens. Whether we then act wisely is another matter altogether.

What interests me about Townhall.com and HillaryClinton.com is how, if at all, they enable people to act politically. Though they share high name recognition and resources, they are functionally quite different, with Townhall being an infrastructure-site oriented towards the long haul, and HillaryClinton being narrowly tied to the ’08 campaign.

Townhall’s action center gives you three thing to do:

* It helps you speak up (offering petitions, talking points if you want to call a talk radio show, stock phrases for letters to the editor or your elected officials). It makes ’vertical’ communication between you and either mass media or officials easier. Essentially, you get a discount version of the aid any elected official depends on.

* It asks you to expand the network by getting your friends to sign up.

* It offers you a voice on Townhall itself, where you can create your own newsletter or blog. The vast majority of the blogs on the site hosts very little debate, even many of the featured ’top blogs of the week’ have no comments at all, but there are at least an attempt to have some ’horizontal’ communication amongst the users.

If anyone knows whether they ever accomplished anything concrete that can be attributed to Townhall’s existence, let me know. I do not know anything about the site’s role in previous campaigns, and the papers obviosuly never cared much – it will be interesting to follow the site as the primary approaches.

Action on HillaryClinton is differently structured,

* It is obsessed with fundraising, so it provides an easy way to rid yourself of a few bucks and the opportunity to become a ’Hillraiser’ to help others do the same.

* It has a much more elaborated set of tools for ’building the base’, also beyond the online world, than Townhall.com – tools that are going to be useful in the upcoming primary. Through the site, you can organize and find events in meetup-style ways. I wonder why this has been integrated into the site itself when meetup is already there, especially since the rather loosly formulated event descriptions in the calendar are somewhat dissonant with the otherwise slick site.

* The site encourages you to ’share your thoughts’, but so far obviously only with the campaign itself, and not other potential Hillary supporters – or anyone else for that matter. The even descriptions mentioned are the only places where you get a feeling anybody but politico-professionals are involved in this campaign. You can offer comments, questions and what have you, but with the campaign blog not yet up an running, the site does not offer you a voice on HillaryClinton, and you get no sense of who are getting involved – there is no horizontal communication, and the only vertical communication is between individual persons and the campaign.

I am sure the money is already streaming in, and there are a few events in the calendar already if you live in a blue or purple state. The much wanted ’conversation with American’ is less impressive to me – it is a name carved in bits and bites around on the fancy site, but the substance of it seems to be ephemeral. You can watch the videos of Hillary answering carefully selected questions, but where did all the questions go, all the other questions, what do the people who are attracted to her candidacy care about? I am sure the campaign management worries about opening up to much, fear that an open site will be taken hostage by trolls and people with views that will be a liability for the campaign. But a good rule of thumb for effective communication is: don’t fake it. If you don’t want a conversation, don’t pretend – they will have to make up their mind about this, or it will backfire.

– – – –

The Townhall model facilitates the generation of a partisan public and attempt to put it to use. I have yet to see any evidence that is has accomplished anything, despite all its attempts at making it possible for people to reach out. It hosts the people, the motivations, and the tools, and is open enough to allow for a constant influx of new people, but maybe it lacks a closer connection to an issue? HillaryClinton tries to mobilize activists for a specific issue, and as it is a rather important one, the outreach does not seem to be the main problem here – rather, one wonders if the site can attract people if it remains so closed, streamlined and top-down run as it is if it is. I am wondering whether their wager is that they can develop a vibrant community offline to give people a sense of belonging to the campaign, and that the activists will then forgive the apparent obsession with staying narrowly ‘on message’ on the site. Something like to such an obesssion seems to have so far kept Clinton’s team from opening up the site to the people they claim to want to converse with and activate. More on all this later.

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