Online Town Halls Like Clinton's Can't Replace Press Conferences

But tech-mediated talk can still be valuable.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hasn't given many national media interviews on the campaign trail, so when she took to Facebook on Monday for a question-and-answer session, journalists eagerly peppered her with queries. (Clinton answered a question I asked her there, signaling her support for more flexible benefits for workers in on-demand startups in the "gig economy.') 

As Jack Murtha wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, candidates and their campaigns shouldn't substitute these sorts of "digital town halls" for press conferences or sit-down interviews and journalists shouldn't settle for them. But since these types of forums are here to stay, we should try to make them as useful as possible.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a town hall, digital or not. In fact, there's a lot to be said for using technology to extend the discussion beyond people who turn out in a grange or green or conference center. If social media platforms are going to be used regularly as public forums in fundamentally democratic processes, we should expect those platforms to offer features that make these sorts of Q&As better.

On the technology side, it would be great to see a mechanism that allows questioners and the public to rate the quality of the responses. Frankly, Reddit has this already, as evidenced in its Ask Me Anything forums, where users can vote answers up and down. Facebook does not.

On the campaign side, politicians should be urged to answer the questions that receive the most upvotes, likes or retweets. We can all see they've been asked, after all. President Obama may have tired of fielding questions about marijuana legalization that floated to the top of Google Moderator when he first came into office, but they were relevant then and remain relevant now to vast numbers of nonviolent drug offenders, particularly in states that have not decriminalized pot. 

Yes, candidates will still issue canned answers, but they will also face unexpected questions that depart from mainstream media fixations, agendas or narratives. That's what happened on the first presidential Google+ Hangout in 2012, when someone asked President Obama a real question about the drone program.

Live video makes those sorts of unexpected, serendipitous interactions possible. Candidates should use it more often.