White House Twitter Town Hall offers lessons
- By Alice Lipowicz
- Jul 11, 2011
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
“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
"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.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.