The 2.0 presidency: Obama to stage YouTube-based exchange

Experts say the president's Feb. 3 venture helps validate the role in social media in governance

As the president of the United States last week addressed Congress about the state of the union, he’s going before the public Feb. 3 to answer their questions about the state of the country via YouTube.

President Barack Obama will use the Web to offer the public a direct and participatory way to communicate with him, the White House wrote Jan. 26 on its blog.

Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and long-time political columnist, said Obama’s event is a carryover from his campaign where he pioneered the use of social media in politics. While a sitting president has never taken citizens’ questions via YouTube, it’s not new to Obama, he said.

“It’s an extension of My.BarackObama.com,” he said. And “it certainly validates social media.”

The online forum is another vehicle to reach out to the public and give them a voice directly to him, experts say.

Daniel Castro, senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said more people are able to join in the political process with online forums such as Monday’s event.

While the event may be a validation, it may not advance social media initiatives too far, said Mark Drapeau, director of innovative social engagement for Microsoft’s U.S. Public Sector and FCW columnist. Many people have been experimenting with new forms of media for a while now.

“The president taking questions via YouTube or other channels may be novel for him, but others in and out of government have been doing this or versions of this for quite some time,” Drapeau said. He said most people won’t be more than mildly impressed by the event.

Furthermore, the event will appeal most to the truly tech-savvy people who have more than experimented with social media. He said the White House event may not grab an overly broad segment of the population.

“Citizens who don’t spend time with new media will most likely not be drawn into such an event at this point,” Drapeau said.

Last year has been a sea change for the government's adoption of new media, Drapeau said. The Obama administration has been spreading out quickly into the realm of Web 2.0. Agencies have used social media Web sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to spread messages about relief efforts in Haiti, as the country recovers from the destructive earthquake. For example, the State Department began sharing information on its official Facebook pages hours after the earthquake struck.

The General Services Administration, a hotbed of such technologies, is leading the Better Buy Project, which takes a collaborative approach to finding innovative ways to streamline government acquisition process. Also, in 2009, GSA signed agreements with a number of Web 2.0 and social media providers so federal agencies can use new-media tools while meeting the government’s legal requirements.

“The real question for the future is not whether such tools will be used, but whether they will be used well to reach organizational goals,” Drapeau said.

These types of events have pitfalls though. Tech-savvy and politically motivated interest groups can use online forums to push their agenda disproportionately louder compared to the size of their membership, Castro said. For example, causes like medical marijuana get more attention than in a more traditional offline forum.

“In a political environment, individuals will always try to game the system to win an advantage,” he said. Technologists are still trying to solve these types of problems so that all voices can be heard.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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