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The Permanent Town Hall: Why a President Needs to Know the Internet

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(in part, regarding an item in the NY Times yesterday.)

It's hard for me, as a nerd, to admit, but the technology isn't really as important as my peers might think. As a customer service rep, however, I can tell you definitively that comfort with Internet use and culture is absolutely required for any kind of leadership these days. It has to do with staying in touch with your community and constituency.

My day job for almost nine years is customer service for a significant web site, on the job every day. In that role I talk to people throughout America, people who are new to computers, people with all kinds of value systems. Prior work was at big corporations, including IBM, Charles Schwab, General Motors and Bank of America... and what I noticed were that guys in leadership roles were increasingly out of touch with people on the front lines.

Part of the problem is that leaders need people around them to deal with Too Much Information. In some cases, assistants limit the information to what the leader wants to hear, letting the leader live in a bubble of complacency, leading to low approval ratings, etc.

Another part of the problem is that people often tell their boss what the boss wants to hear, and the boss tells his boss what she wants to hear.

That's why leaders in big organizations are so frequently out of touch.

People use Internet technology to work around that, effectively and successfully. We're talking email, discussion groups, blogging, and messaging in all its forms. If the leader is paying attention, and looking at direct feedback of that sort, the leader might just be in touch with his or her constituency.

The Internet tech isn't required to stay in touch, it's just the only way if your community numbers in the hundreds of millions.

Doing customer service for a living, I feel like I just might be pretty deeply in touch with my community. I can let my bosses know what's going on, a little redundant, since my CEO also does customer service. Most leaders, CEOs or presidents, don't have the time to do customer service or even to skim feedback forums or whatever. If the leader is Internet comfortable or literate, he can have an assistant do that. However, it only works if the leader has a good sense of what Internet culture and feedback is about.

A president is the leader of the American community, a lot of people, many of which don't yet have Internet access or comfort. That's being addressed, too slowly, but we do have the critical mass online that a president needs to listen to, to be in touch.

It's a permanent Town Hall, everyone's invited, and in this year, and in this election, it's becoming real. If you want to be President, you need to be in touch with people, and that's one of the best things you can use the Internet for.