Jonah Van Why
Near the end of March, Facebook unveiled “Town Hall”. Though not Facebook’s first foray into all things political (voter registration promotion, “I Voted” social badges, etc,), Town Hall is a major step in bridging the communications divide between representatives and their constituents. So, what exactly does Town Hall do?
For a service being hailed by Mashable as “probably the best thing the social network has ever done”, Facebook’s Town Hall platform doesn’t actively do very much. Essentially, the service offers an easy way for users to look up their representatives. Facebook users input their addresses and Town Hall provides them with a curated list of their representatives from city council all the way to President. Along with the names, Town Hall also presents buttons which allow users to follow each politician on Facebook as well as contact them, usually via their individual Facebook page.
Any platform that keeps people informed is a welcome addition to online communities, but Town Hall’s current limited functionality keeps it from being disruptive enough to replace other digital advocacy platforms such as Phone2Action or VoterVoice. When talking about Town Hall, Mark Zuckerberg emphasized the importance of increasing political participation, saying “many policies impacting our lives are local, and this is where our participation has the greatest influence.” At this time, it would seem that Facebook is banking on its pre-established user-base to increase participation, rather than creating features that encourage tangible and recurring engagement.
The listing service Town Hall offers is well and good, but Phone2Action and VoterVoice already connect users to government officials, and can do so more accurately. Town Hall’s list making process tends to leave out a surprisingly large portion of politicians that do not have Facebook pages. More importantly, beyond a weak appeal to peer pressure via a feature that notes how many of your friends have connected with a government representative, Town Hall doesn’t offer much to keep its users coming back.
By contrast, Phone2Action allows advocates to push multimedia campaign pages, integrates telephone and email tools to easily contact lawmakers, and keeps supporters updated on the issues that they care about. VoterVoice not only alerts supporters to issues they’ve marked important, but matches them to relevant representatives pertaining to those issues, and constantly updates them with newsletters, online surveys, fundraising modules, and legislative scorecards.
Town Hall is certainly a nifty tool. But, if Facebook is serious about using their platform to improve political participation, it should take note of existing platforms and make sure its lists are complete and its users continuously engaged.