The White House called it a historic day if for no other reason than it was the first time we saw a live tweet from a sitting American president.
Barack Obama himself tapped out a 140-character message to launch the first-ever Twitter Town Hall on Wednesday, July 6, in a collaboration between the administration and the popular social networking site. It was the latest in a series of events that partnered with the “Big 3” in social media. (Similar ones were held on YouTube and Facebookearlier this year.)
It certainly gave the appearance of a regular town hall, at least it looked like one via live video feed. But it was heralded as a “conversation” between the President and the American people; or, at least, for the few million or so who use Twitter and were willing to send a question with the hashtag #askobama. The handful of questions eventually chosen were picked via algorithm that measured frequency and popularity. And the president – not usually known for his brevity – was able to forego the Twitter character limit and answer at length on topics as diverse as the debt ceiling, education and national defense.
Rhetoric aside, this town hall was about as extraordinary as it was frustrating. It was revolutionary in both the tiny lifespan of this simple social networking site as well as in how Twitter (and other online platforms, for that matter) has transformed presidential politics. Can you even imagine a world where political contenders weren’t announcing their candidacy in 140 characters, Facebook status updates and YouTube videos?
Questions were apparently heavily screened by White House staff, with submissions from House Speaker @JohnBoehner and New York Times columnist @NickKristof making it through this filter. So as exciting a premise – and as humorous as it can be to see questions posed by avatars such as @RenegadeNerd – the “conversation” was anything but.
Perhaps it has more to do with the intrinsicness of the medium. Twitter is still the Wild West of the social networked world. It’s brought down congressmen (@RepWiener), humiliated corporations (@ChryslerAutos, @Entenmanns), and embroiled celebrities too numerous to name in public relations imbroglios. Twitter is a free-form, uncensored stream of consciousness; and it’s a strategic nightmare for building controversy-free tête-à-têtes among a doctrinally diverse populace.
But what a Twitter town hall does provide is a wealth of data in the form of millions of tweets that can be sifted through, evaluated and crunched, measuring interest and engagement in ways never before possible. The administration hired Radian6, a Canadian social media monitoring firm, to analyze over a million Tweets from the past eight weeks and provide a snapshot of what attracts and angers the Twittersphere. Some of their findings were pretty noteworthy:
- Men tweet about politics slightly more than women.
- More than half of the 1.2 million political conversations included the keyword “Obama” (56.6%).
- The raid on Osama bin Ladin led to the biggest spike in sustained conversation in twitter history.
(The entire analysis, including a series of interesting graphics, can be found on the Radian6website.)A similar company, Mass Relevance , provided live visual analysis and trend data during the course of the town hall, including a “U.S. heat map” that highlighted Twitter activity by geography.
As Erika Fry from the Columbia Journalism Review remarked, this is a goldmine of information most likely to be used in crafting messages for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. No doubt, I’m sure. But as the medium shapes the message and the message begins to be shaped by platforms such as Twitter, this outlaw realm may find a way to force a “conversation” even if it’s contained in 140 characters or less.