Politicians, voters and academics have been experimenting with online political engagement since the advent of the web in 1991. The three main elements of Fireside Chats:
- politicians directly participate,
- at a nonpartisan platform, and
- engage in dialogue with constituents,
are all familiar although combining all three elements is novel.
Vice President Al Gore’s 1994 ‘interactive town hall’ was a pioneering experiment where he directly (1) participated in an Ask-Me-Anything text chat on a nonpartisan (2) platform run by Compuserve.
The Congressional Management Foundation’s ‘online town hall’ project refined this approach, by (among other things) combining text questions with video replies and adding a single-topic focus. The ConnectingToCongress group conducted 21 such events, with 13 participating US Members of Congress, in 2006-8.
They made careful measurements of the impacts on the participants, which they found to be amazingly positive. They concluded that online town halls show great promise for strengthening our democracy.
There has also long been experimentation with online dialogue (3). The Minnesota e-democracy listserv discussion group began hosting citizen-to-citizen conversations in 1994, and has since evolved into the 50+ forums of E-Democracy.org which are used by about 30,000 citizens. To date, however, there has been very little participation in them by politicians.
Also very significant has been the partisan forums associated with US presidential campaigns, again citizen-to-citizen dialogue without direct involvement by the politicians. The 2004 Dean campaign for President, managed by Joe Trippi, was a pioneer of open forums and reaped a financial windfall as a result. The 2008 Obama campaign's social network was built up to 2.5 million activists and 13 million supporters at the time of his win.
Subsequently the Obama social network was neglected and withered away, and not much happened with US online voter engagement until 8 years later with Trump's innovative use of the Twitter platform:
Donald Trump received tremendous gains, at zero financial cost, through direct (1) participation on the non-partisan (2) Twitter platform.
Some progressive pioneers were aghast that an authoritarian had seized the initiative in e-democracy outreach:
Of course Trump's online voter engagement does not include any dialogue (3) aspects; these would be completely antithetical to his style as a politician.
In terms of these predecessors, the Fireside Chat project can be viewed as a combination of
- the best elements of Social Media (timeliness, ease of use, existing connectivity),
- with the best of Online Town Halls (direct contact, interactivity, ability to consider topics in depth, mutual fact checking, civility),
- with a novel focus on one-to-one conversations similar to what one has in real-life canvassing.
Update: On March 14 2020 Bernie Sanders live-streamed a ‘Fireside Chat’, in part as a quarantine friendly replacement for a tradional campaign rally for his 2020 Presidential run. It had about 100,000 contemporaneous viewers, and the video of it has been seen over 170,000 times, so there is definitely an audience for this type of engagement.