Politics breeds cynicism the way email breeds spam. A lot of the cynicism directed at US President Barack Obama's Twitter Town Hall is misplaced.
To be clear, my opinions would be identical if this had been a Republican president making history as the first President to conduct a Q&A session with citizens via Twitter.
The criticisms fell roughly into three camps:
- It was just a publicit/marketing stunt/gimmick
- It allowed the President to avoid tough questions while promoting his talking points
- It was a clueless use of the technology that failed to leverage Twitter's strengths as a vehicle for social change
Just a publicity stunt
Since Obama has held town halls all over the country numerous times since taking office, the critics must find the use of Twitter to be the gimmick, as Andrew Smith called it. The director of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Politics added, "It's helpful to him in that he's using a new sexy technology."
While this may have been Obama's first Twitter town hall, it wasn't the first time the White House used social technology to solicit questions from the average citizen. Back in January, the president took questions submitted via YouTube. That program used the same "Ask Obama" handle employed in the Twitter town hall.
Thus the administration is engaging the citizenry through "Ask Obama" and using multiple social channels, enhancing the ability of the average person to ask a question and perhaps get an answer. I fail to see how that's a marketing gimmick or a publicity stunt.
Controlling the questions
The Center for Politics' Smith also suggested that using Twitter gave the Administration more control over the questions. the opposition was more strident in its accusations. "It ended up being nothing more than an infomercial for Obama and his administration," according to Saul Anuzis, a member of the Republican National Committee, who added that the event only made it appear that the president "reached out to the American people."
To assess whether it was, in fact, a highly controlled event that produced easy questions to which the President could empahsize his key messages, you need to look at three angles:
- The Administration had no hand in selecting questions. Rather, Twitter developed an algorithm that assessed the popularity of each question accompanied by the #AskObama hashtag, based on how many times it was retweeted. Those that met the criteria were passed along to a team of eight curators selected by Twitter, including six professional journalists, a student journalists and two bloggers who write about business and economics. The final selections were sent to moderator (and Twitter co-founder/executive Jack Dorsey), who read them to the president, who hadn't seen any of them in advance.
- One question came from the Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner. (The image below shows Obama responding to Boehner's question.) Somehow I doubt Boehner threw Obama any softballs at all. Another question came from New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who was also unlikely to make it easy on the president.
- I haven't read a single criticism that analyzed all the questions carrying the #AskObama hashtag and suggesting questions that should have been asked. If somebody had gone to the trouble, though, it's unlikely they would have selected a question that enjoyed popular support through retweeting.
One other angle on the control issue suggested that, by going straight to the public, Obama was able to deflect the tough questions the press would have posed.
Indeed, the press has long served as the filter by which politicians and businesses got their message to the public. But do all president-to-citizen interaction have to stick with that model? Obama hasn't forsaken press conferences; the Twitter town hall is an addition to the mix, not a replacement.
But it's fascinating to note the differences between the questions the public asks and those offered by reporters. A keyword study of the questions asked (and compared to questions reporters have asked at White House briefings) revealed that the public was focused on issues (job and the deficit, mostly), while reporters tend to focus on political and partisan topics.
If sourcing questions from the public focuses the president on issues people care about, rather than contributing to the polarization of the electorate, I'll support more of it.
A failure to leverage the technology
In the Middle East, Twitter, Facebook and other technologies played an instrumental part in redefining the role of the citizen in the shape of their governments. Doesn't that make a town hall Q&A look pretty lame?
That's at the heart of a strident rant in a Harvard Business Review blog by Havas Media Lab Director Umair Haque, who writes...
It's marketing over substance, hype over reality, spin over reform-as usual. The dismal truth is that pretty much all of yesterday's institutions - from banks, to "the corporation," to credit ratings, to schools-are just as broken as our political institutions are. And I'd say using the very, very awesome Twitter to solicit "questions" from citizens in this environment is a little bit like earnestly running a focus group about the best color for your next pair of $2000 loafers - while your boardroom's on fire.
I'm not buying into your latest "campaign." I'm not a "target." I'm a citizen of a generation whose future is going up in smoke faster than you can say "credit default swaps." And what you're really telling me is this: in some parts of the world, social tools can fuel the revolutions that topple dictators. Here, in the nation that invented them? They're used for marketing stunts.
Haque's not wrong about the depth of the problems that need resolving, nor is he wrong about the potential embedded in social technologies to help resolve them. I'd like to see the tools available to us applied by my government to a more participatory democracy. But dismissing the use to which the Administration did put Twitter demonsrates a remarkable lack of understanding from a media lab director who should know better.
Over a decade ago, I interviewed Jared Spool, founder and CEO of User Interface Engineering. He explained that technology-any technology-can only do three things: solve a problem, improve an existing process, or allow you to do something that was impossible before the technology was introduced.
Haque would have us believe that if the Administration doesn't apply Twitter and other social technologies to the third benefit-doing something that wasn't possible before-then what it is doing with the technology is somehow disingenuous. But the Twitter town hall fell squarely into the camp of the second benefit: improving an existing process process.
In the many face-to-face town hall meeetings held to date, only the lucky few who scored tickets and passed screenings were able to get into the auditorium where they had a shot at having a question answered. Turning to YouTube and Twitter simply opens the door to anybody who wants query his or her leader. Shrugging that off as a stunt is like making fun of someone who uses a computer for word processing, which improves the process of typing. No, it's not taking full advantage of the networked capability of a computer, but it's a damned sight better than a typewriter for producing documents.
If you think the ability to ask a question isn't meaningful to the general public, read the reaction from someone whose question made it into the 18 the president addressed. "I was flabbergasted that my question was asked. Amazed," writes David Meerman Scott. "Holy cow! POTUS answered my question!"
That reaction was provoked by a long-held belief that the average guy doesn't get to ask the president a question.
For all the cynicism that bubbled up around the Twitter town hall, I'm hopeful there will be more. I can see scheduling them on specific topics (e.g., jobs, the deficit); I can also see introducing tweeted questions into face-to-face town halls, alternating between people in attendance and those watching and tweeting. There's also no reason not to mix up tweets and questions submitted through YouTube.
I would hope others see the benefit of opening access through the use of these channels, leading to questions from shareholders unable to attend annual meetings, customers unable to attend a press conference and employees who can't be in person at the company town hall.
Anything that expands access is fine by me.
Now, if we can only get beyond evasive and non-responsive answers, which are hardly unique to questions submitted by Twitter.