White House Twitter Town Hall offers lessons

President Barack Obama’s first Twitter Town Hall on July 6 is long over, but the online discussion continues over what was most innovative about the event and what lessons can be learned.

The White House announced the event a week in advance and offered the public an opportunity to submit questions to the president via the #askobama hashtag. Obama answered some of the questions in a live-streaming video in front of a small group of Twitter fans, and he tweeted the answers to others.

There appeared to be abundant tweeting activity during the event. Genevieve Coates reported in a July 8 entry on the “Radian6” blog that there were more tweets during the hour-long event than there were during the six days leading up to it.


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About 40,000 questions were submitted, and the flood of queries created its own problems. With so many questions coming in, it was noticeable that only 18 were answered during the live-streamed portion of the event, John Sutter wrote in a July 6 report at CNN Tech. “Is Twitter really the best way to talk to a president?” he asked.

That was one of the signs of a small but significant backlash in media reports shortly after the event, with several writers noting that incoming tweets were limited to 140 characters while Obama was free to speak at length in his answers.

Some observers complained that the president’s leeway, in comparison to the brevity of the questions, created an unflattering appearance. “For Mr. Obama, that meant answers of hundreds, even thousands of characters — a clear violation of basic Twitter etiquette, if not the specific rules of Wednesday’s town hall format,” said Michael Shear in an entry at the New York Times’ “The Caucus” blog on July 6.

But other observers noted the innovative nature of the event and what it had to offer, especially in terms of the ability to collect important information from a large group of participants in a short period of time. It was possible to analyze the number, content, types and location of incoming tweets to gauge participants’ concerns.

Twitter used its own analytics and algorithms to help shape the event’s format and make it possible to identify the topics and tweets that were gaining the most traction in its system. Before the Town Hall, Twitter announced that it would be using algorithms to search and identify the tweets that generated the most interest, via retweets, favorites and replies.

“The Obama team will be able to use Twitter data to see how the nation is thinking and what its concerns are,” wrote Ryan Lawler in an entry posted July 5 on the “GigaOM” blog.

Other analysts also provided useful perspectives. At the Boston Globe, the news team assembled a chart indicating that the public’s questions for the president differed significantly from the questions typically posed by Washington, D.C., journalists. The public’s questions focused on jobs, the deficit and the economy, while the journalists asked more questions about specific negotiations with Congress.

In addition, the White House’s Twitter Town Hall was used as a lobbying opportunity by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which encouraged its members to tweet during the event. The lobbying activity generated nearly half a million tweets, wrote Kate Ackley in a July 6 report at Roll Call.

Although the effects of the event continue to be debated, some have already called for the White House to maintain an ongoing dialogue via Twitter.

"If the president truly wants to...embrace social media, he should use those technologies to respond to questions regularly — not just solicit them when his administration deems it time," wrote James Kotecki in an article published July 7 on the New Republic’s website.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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