Online Town Meetings

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Ari Goelman
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Participation at public meetings is marred by asymmetries of information, power and organization. Particularly in today's climate of declining social capital, concerned citizens find it difficult to adequately educate and organize themselves when faced with better organized and funded special interests.


Thousands of small towns in New England continue to be governed by the town meeting. In these towns the town meeting -- to which every voter in the town is invited -- constitutes the legislative body of the municipality.

Below I discuss the possibilities of adding an online component to the town meeting. I should note first, though, that the lessons apply beyond New England. Civic governments throughout the world are required by law or tradition to hold public hearings before passing certain kinds of legislation. New England's town meetings are a specific example of these meetings, but lessons drawn from them are widely applicable.


Fundamentally, I propose that better access to information leads to better government. To this end, I propose an electronic meeting place where residents can educate themselves and communicate with like-minded others before the town meeting. Not only would individual residents become better able to educate and organize themselves, the town meeting as a whole would benefit -- the dialogue would be better informed, allowing for more nuanced decisions.

Such a meeting place might also increase levels of social capital in a community, especially among those segments most often excluded from public debates. Recent studies have tied the decline in this crucial but elusive variable to health problems, depression and crime. (Putnam, 2000) Unfortunately the overall effect of the internet upon social capital is far from clear.

Critics have come to dramatically different findings with respect to the impact of the internet upon social ties. (Kraut, et. al., 1998) (LaRose, et. al., 2001) (Nie and Erbring, 2000) (Wellman, et. al., 2001) In this particular respect their conclusions have seemed completely contradictory: they note respectively that the internet has led to increased levels of depression, decreased levels of depression, increased isolation and decreased isolation. Clearly there is currently room for reasonable people to disagree on this issue.

However, as critics have pointed out (Nie, 2001) many studies conflate different types of internet users and different types of internet use. Different internet tools have different effects. It seems reasonable that an internet tool which is devoted entirely to encouraging civic interaction will, if it has any effect at all, have a positive effect on the levels of social capital within a community.

It is with this understanding that we propose an online interface to preface the town meetings. These "online town meetings" will allow for a heightened level of debate, and eventually, a heightened level of understanding at the actual town meetings. Moreover, residents will be able to actually modify the town warrant, should they build enough support around a given issue. Any additional effects on civic participation can be viewed as incidental, but certainly not unanticipated.


I propose a simple interface, a mixture of e-mail and online discussion groups, in concert with a linked series of webpages. The proposed technology is widely available. A system of collaborative filtering is at the heart of the system -- the more people participate in a given discussion, the higher prominence the discussion topic is given. This gives users the power to emphasize the issues that they feel are most important, regardless of the site moderators.

It should be noted at the outset that the online activities are envisioned integrated with a series of offline actions. The initiative would be publicized in local papers, and public work stations would be made available in every public space within a town, along with instruction with respect to their use. Such a real world initiative would be crucial in making the digital information accessible to all interested townspeople. It would also have the added benefit of making the digitally disenfranchised familiar with technology with which they might otherwise have little contact.

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