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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Obama's Twitter Town Hall: GOP Crashes! 2012 Web 2.0 Success Or Tired Gimmick?

Twitter town hall: Obama answers not short, but tweet

In the end, a 140-character limit was too restrictive for President Barack Obama, whose answers at the first-ever presidential Twitter town hall Wednesday greatly exceeded his message box.

“I know on Twitter I am supposed to be short,” Obama said on Wednesday, holding forth just a little longer on higher education.

Obama, who last year at a press conference misidentified the popular social media site as “Twitters,” opened the event by making history as the first president to livetweet. The ghosts of the historic, ornate East Room might be forgiven for watching without understanding.

“In order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep,” Obama tweeted to himself at the start of the town hall, signing it “bo.”

In style and substance, Obama’s Twitter town hall echoed his recent Facebook town hall: Attended by a youngish company executive — this time, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey instead of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — Obama fielded mostly bland set-ups that served as launching pads for familiar talking points.

“What changes to the tax system do you think are necessary to help solve the deficit problem and for the system to be fair?,” asked almorrison88, in a typical question selected by Twitter.

While the #AskObama hashtag on Twitter seethed with questions about marijuana, sex, politics, movie references and other titillating topics, the questions culled by Twitter and posed to Obama mostly played it safe with jobs, the economy, collective bargaining and higher education.

Asked what he might have done differently in handling the economic recession, Obama said he would have better explained to Americans how long recovery would take, and he would have recognized sooner that housing was a bigger problem than he first believed.

Twitter gatekeepers also let a question through from Republican House Speaker John Boehner: “After embarking on a record spending binge that’s left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?”

“Obviously John is the speaker of the House, he is a Republican and so this is a slightly skewed question,” Obama responded, bristling slightly at what appeared to be an unforeseen challenge. “What he is right about is that we have not seen fast enough job growth relative to the need.”

For the White House, part of the genius of Twitter is the perception it creates that the president is accessible to anyone with an account. That egalitarian notion dovetails with the 2012 campaign aspiration to re-engage supporters as de facto organizers and advisers.

“I still think the #AskObama @Townhall is awesome even if none of my questions get an answer,” user JohnnyAudacity tweeted Wednesday. “makes me feel good just to submit Q’s & ideas.”

Some attendees at the White House event had a similar reaction: “I still can’t believe that I’ve sat 15 ft from @BarackObama for past hour,” said Tweetup participant CMcNally, adding the hashtag, “#starstruck.”

Even so, it’s hard to name a prominent politician less suited to the 140-character constraints of Twitter than Obama, whose locutions veer toward the expository over the pithy.

As it turned out, the questions at the Twitter town hall hewed to the tight character limit, but Obama did not — his answers — not tweeted, but spoken aloud — were as long as in any other venue. The White House Twitter team boiled down his responses to the proscribed length for various official Twitter feeds reporting the event.

The messy, small-d-democratic ethos of Twitter also presented a conundrum for the White House, which strongly favors tightly choreographed and controlled Obama town hall events to a disorderly Internet free-for-all.

Some of the funnier, offbeat topics posed to Obama that didn’t make the town hall list sought dating advice, wondered where have all the cowboys gone and whether diet Dr. Pepper really tastes as good as the original, among others.

Thornier issues raised by users that also didn’t make the cut included questions about the treatment of Bradley Manning, police brutality and race, and the administration’s broken promise on installing solar panels at the White House.

To establish some control, the White House made a partner of Twitter for the first-ever Twitter town hall, deputizing Dorsey to pose questions to the president culled from the welter posed by Twitter users. Dorsey said the questions were chosen by eight “curators” screening the #AskObama hashtag in regions around the country.

In some instances, Obama indirectly engaged with his Twitter questioners, but the relay setup of question-to-curator-to-Dorsey-to-Obama cost the event the kind of instant intimacy that is a Twitter selling point.

“RenegadeNerd,” Obama said, looking at a Twitter user’s profile picture projected large on a screen along with his question about raising the debt ceiling through executive order. “That picture captures it all there. He’s looking kind of confused.”

While Obama answered the question at length, saying Congress shouldn’t toy with the debt ceiling, Twitter users agreed online that RenegadeNerd henceforth would have no trouble getting dates.

Reviews from Twitter users following the event were characteristically mixed: “Qs reflected Twitter’s diversity & unparalleled access: from regular folks in TX and NH to economy experts to House Speak & NYT journo,” tweeted ChloeS as the event concluded.

The very next tweet on #AskObama, from Umair, said, “People, you don’t need to ‘communicate’ more with your politicians. You need more power to participate in your democracy.”

Until now, Obama’s forays into the Twitterverse have been rather formal and distant. His Twitter feed is staffed by others and directs followers to his speeches, events and official video — the same information that is available on the White House website, and also from various official White House Twitter accounts.

Numerous administration officials are on Twitter — communications director Dan Pfeiffer tweets with fellow Hoyas about Georgetown University athletics, in addition to hyping the president’s activities and message.

Press secretary Jay Carney has an account he rarely uses, while White House social media director Macon Phillips uses his official account to communicate frequently with more than 9,000 followers.

Like the White House Flickr page, Twitter is also a way for the administration to circumvent the critical scrum of the White House press corps and communicate directly with supporters.

There is also significant potential for Twitter in the 2012 campaign.

“[Twitter users] are going to be used for fundraising purposes, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Garth Jowett, a media literacy professor at the University of Houston. “Coalescing $20 donations is going to be the way of the future.”

Already, the BarackObama Twitter account, run by 2012 campaign staff, has been outfitted with the colors and logo of the 2012 campaign.

Sources: CNN, Huffington Post, NY Times, Politico

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