E-democracy, e-mail and bloggers

Online marriage proposals probably do not figure in many people's vision of e-democracy. But that concept is still evolving, and White House Internet Director Jimmy Orr certainly appears open to new ideas.

White House officials began hosting online chats on the White House Web site regularly in April 2003, allowing citizens to submit questions to Bush administration officials and other people in the news. Recent guests on "Ask the White House" included Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier.

Orr, who is in charge of the forum, took questions himself late last month. Besides talking about a marriage proposal that was posted during one of the chat sessions, he discussed the policies and philosophy behind Ask the White House and WhiteHouse.gov.

The following are excerpts from Orr's answers to questions. Unless bracketed, the text is taken directly from the transcripts, but the excerpts have been organized for thematic unity.

On e-democracy

The most important thing is we are putting these individuals online to take your questions. It's been compared to by many critics as a good step in e-democracy. I have to agree with that....

The only White House [most people] will see is the online White House.... Those who visit the [Web] site should be able to see all aspects of the presidency: the policies outlined by the president, the press briefings, the biographical information, information on the White House itself and the people who work in the White House.

On dealing with tough questions

We purposely tell our guests to take some confrontational and negative questions. We try to balance the questions actually. Do we take "supportive" questions, too? Sure. Like I say, we try to balance it out. But we don't duck hard questions....

There isn't an elaborate screening process. Not only is there not the time for that, but if we just put up supportive questions, who would read the chats? It would be preaching to the choir.

I would suggest reading any of the above-mentioned chats — and peruse some others as well: [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz, Jim Connaughton [chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality], Treasury Secretary John Snow, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, Margaret Spellings [assistant to the president for domestic policy], etc. I could go on forever. These are real exchanges. Check out Karen Hughes [former counselor to the president] from earlier this year as well.

On the importance of content

Our goal is [to] drive traffic. We want visitors on our site. The way to do that is to create that Web-exclusive content that no one else can create and interact with your visitors. Both are extremely important....

Some examples of the unique content [at WhiteHouse.gov] include: Ask the White House, White House Interactive, White House Radio, any unique video content we create, Barney.gov [featuring daily photos of the president's 3-year-old Scottish terrier], the history page, any of the special pages we create, [such as] the World War II Memorial page, the Independence Day page, the holiday pages, the White House ghost stories page. And we've got a great new page with the departing White House pastry chef that we will hopefully unveil later....

It is important that people see that this section is updated all the time. If you were to go to a site that hasn't been updated for weeks or months, chances are you'd never go back.

I visited a site the other day that stated it was last updated in 1998. Ridiculous....

On the power of the medium

We are moving toward a society that doesn't rely on the clock as much. If you miss a TV program, you can record it, for example. [A] successful Web site will offer all of [its] programming at any time of day. I don't understand why networks aren't offering that now, really. If you miss a TV program, you really should be able to go to their site and watch it online at any time of day. Same goes for popular news programs. You want to increase viewership and name recognition — put the program on the site.

On what drives Web traffic

Many people come to the [White House Web] site for the policy areas. But many others come for the more personal side of the White House. We get a lot of traffic when White House Chief of Staff Andy Card does an Ask the White House session, but we also get a lot of traffic when someone like the pastry chef appears.

On managing e-mail

[We receive] tens of thousands [of e-mail messages] per day. And we get e-mails from virtually every country. ... So if your e-mail doesn't get answered, don't take it personally. I would resubmit it. Here are some tips for getting your question answered on White House Interactive: 1. Keep the e-mail short and to the point. 2. Try to limit the [number] of questions.

On the use of Web site counters

I don't get sites that use counters. Why use them? What you consider high traffic might not be considered high traffic by the visitor. I went to [the site for] one of my favorite bands the other day, and it had a counter on it. And to me, it seemed low. Maybe people aren't as picky as I am, but why even take the risk?

On bloggers

Bloggers are very instrumental. ... They notice something in the news or something they've observed that maybe the "traditional" media hasn't covered or is spending much time on. But they think it is significant. So, they give the story a second life (or first). And they talk about it. And others talk about it. Before you know it, it is leading the news. Watch over the next couple years to see how influential they will become. I like [ABC News'] The Note, Instapundit, [James] Taranto, many more. Bloggers are great.

On Whitehouse.com, a porn site

In a perfect world, this Web site address would be owned by the federal government. But back in 1994, who would have thought to reserve URLs? The medium was too new. Nobody knew. ... It's really sad actually because you think of the children and others who have stumbled onto it. Some people have their sights set higher than others. I'm glad that's not my legacy.

On online marriage proposals

You know what was really fun was when Greg Mankiw [chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers] was on in December [2003] and Mrs. [Laura] Bush was on a couple days later. There was a marriage proposal in [one of the e-mail messages]. Greg decided to post it and wished the person good luck. But there was no response ... until Mrs. Bush hosted Ask the White House a few days later, and there was a response. And it all happened on Ask the White House. It was the first online wedding proposal we've had on WhiteHouse.gov. I suspect it might be the only one.

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