Online forums have significant advantages over public forums, advantages that will allow greater public participation:
1) You don’t have to schlep yourself to be somewhere at a specific time to contribute. You can do it according to my own schedule.
2) The anonymity here allows you to say things that you might be afraid to say in a public forum. For example, you can say “I think the cops have been abusing their power” here without having to worry about a disgruntled cop following you around waiting for me to commit a traffic violation.
3) People can actually take some time to form their thoughts before presenting them.
4) This medium is self-documenting. No need to worry about the filtering that takes place either in minutes or news reports.
The obvious drawbacks to an online forum are that it favors people who are comfortable with technology, people who have good writing skills, people who can afford a computer. Those are significant issues, but they are not necessary worse than the drawbacks of a traditional public forum, which favors people who have enough free time (and transportation) to go to them, people who have good oratory skills, and people who don’t have anything to lose by speaking up in public.
There are subtle drawbacks to online forums as well. One such challenge is that people can take on multiple accounts in order to make support for something appear greater than it is. We have seen this a few times in the past year, where politicians have anonymously pumped themselves online.
I suppose there is a place for both types of public input devices, but I think that if Massachusetts and the Patrick administration ramped up its use of online devices, it would become a competitive advantage for our state.
It would truly be a “together we can” approach, and would serve to curb much of the self-interested discussion that typically takes place at traditional forums (check the audience at each of those public forums and count how many regular people attend versus people who have something to lose or gain).