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Whitehouse Twitter Townhall: A Success in Public Engagement or an Over-Scripted Setback?

Results are in from President Obama’s July 6 live question-answering Twitter session, and from what we can tell, Americans were more than eager participate with reports of over 40,000 questions coming in and over 110,000 individual Twitter messages sent during during the live event. However, it seems that the latest attempts of the Whitehouse to blend traditional media and social media in hopes of reaching people who really care about current political issues, may have fallen short of participants’ expectations of openness.

Many were unsatisfied by Obama’s town hall-style event, in which Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey read questions aloud to him that were submitted via Twitter and chosen through a complicated process of hand-picking and algorithmic sorting that no one seems to fully understand.  According to the Nation’s Ari Melber the Town Hall was a low bar for online civic participation.

The White House walks a fine line of integrating new tools, engaging people, understanding their response and having a conversation with them, while maintaining a sense of control over the conversation that can easily become heated and out of control when dealing with domestic politics. There was quite a sense of bipartisan unease over the fact that the list of questioners who received direct answers from Obama, included New York Times’ Nicolas Kristof and House Speaker John Boehner, rather than making more of an effort to truly engage with the normal everyday citizen who was eager to converse and provide feedback and ask questions regarding issues that directly effect them.

Obama did have a glimmer of genuine interaction with “real” people, especially during a segment of the town hall devoted to parsing answers to a question he had posed via Twitter at the start of the event. Near the end of the event, something happened: Among the answers he solicited was one that seemed to catch him at a loss for words.

One participant wrote: "I’d cut costs by cutting some welfare programs," one Twitter user wrote. "People will never try harder when they are handed everything."

Obama stammered a bit, then he gave a seemingly unscripted answer, one that served as a conclusion for the event.

"You and I are sitting here because somebody, somewhere, made an investment in our futures," he said at the end of his remarks, according to a White House transcript of the event. "We’ve got the same obligation for the folks who are coming up behind us. We’ve got to make sure that we’re looking out for them, just like the previous generations looked out for us. And that’s what I think will help us get through what are some difficult times and make sure that America’s future is even brighter than the past."

Our hope for the future of this type of government initiated public involvement is that the Whitehouse continues their efforts to gain a better understanding of civic engagement online, and that the American people will be able to experience more unscripted moments like these.

[Inspired by TechPresident]


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