Obama’s Twitter Townhall

"Win win" for White House and Twitter, 140 characters for everyone else

This summer Twitter brought us Anthony Weiner in his underpants; a Fox News-imposter who briefly hacked the President to death and surely a number of other hot but quickly forgotten scandals, gaffes and moments of personal disgrace.

It would seem a strange time to step into this particular social media minefield, and yet the Obama administration has in fact leapt. Vice President Joe Biden made his virgin tweet earlier this week (President Obama did so last month), and today, the social media platform brought us the nation’s first-ever presidential Twitter Townhall.

Here, in case you weren’t glued to the stream, is what went down.

The townhall coincided with a “tweetup” of 30 prominent @WhiteHouse-following “tweeps” and featured our Commander in Chief responding—blessedly, in spoken word and at length—to 140-word text blasts while perched aside a televised avatar. Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder, moderated, and Mass Relevance, a company that specializes in something called social curation services, operated a “heat map” to reflect the up-to-the-second Twitter activity, indicating the where and when of burning questions across the country.

While the event was billed as one of unprecedented engagement with the public—specifically the 2.25 milion @WhiteHouse account followers (and whoever else cared to follow today)—it’s hard to imagine a majority of the population can appreciate the meaning of #askobama.

Certainly a large audience was reached on issues people care about. Yet, the administration publicized the townhall event as one that was spontaneous, excitedly happening in real-time—and thanks to the wonders of technologies like heat maps and social media algorithms—entirely democratic (asks go to the most commonly tweeted questions).

This is not exactly true. (Remember the outpouring of marijuana legalization inquiries at Obama’s YouTube Townhall in February, or look at Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler’s account of the headaches Twitter faced in fielding sincere questions in a Twitterverse full of extreme partistans, pranksters, and cause promoters to understand why.)

The administration had far more control over the message than they may like to admit.

Though Dorsey announced just-received tweets with a game show-like enthusiasm—“this in just under 10 minutes ago,”—many of the questions, which he dutifully told us were 10% about education, 27% about jobs and so on, were selected in the days leading up to the Townhall. Both Speaker of the House John Boehner and New York Times columnist Nick Kristof had their tweets read, undermining the notion that this event granted access to the everyman.

A Twitter press release explained that “a team of seasoned users” helped select the questions; The Atlantic and other sources reported today that these experts were in fact a group of journalists, bloggers and academics from across the country.

And even before the event, a company called Radian6 spent an eight-week pre-planning period, segmenting, analyzing, and getting a feel for the politically-concerned Twitterverse on 22 issues of the administration’s interest.

As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post noted the townhall was a “win-win”for the White House: both a spectacle, sure to draw the public’s and media attention (like from the Post who live-blogged the event) and an easy way to target the Twitter-using electorate in anticipation of 2012.

What Cillizza didn’t mention, and which makes the event even more of a win for the administration is all the data they’re managing to mine from the event—about what people are thinking about those particular 22 issues of interest. Radian6 promised detailed analytics of the Twitter activity from today’s townhall, which will certainly be useful in crafting messages and campaigning for 2012.

The townhall was also a win for Twitter, which might have many followers, but could always have more. It sure felt like a sales pitch when Dorsey, dashing and slickly dressed, padded out and introduced his company as a worldwide force for spirited debate. Seconds later Obama, himself, made a live presidential tweet, asking his audience how he they would recommend he reduce the deficit.

In another win, they had to respond in less than 140 characters.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: ,