I recall a time a few years ago when Twitter was scoffed at. It was the blogosphere’s punching-bag. It was the stupid little service that no one in their right mind would ever use. It was for people who wanted to share the mundane bits of their lives — that no one else wanted to read. It was for egomaniacs. Or losers. It would never catch on.
And then it did.
I was thinking about this today as I stood in the East Room of the White House (#humblebrag). Why was I there? To see Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey moderate a Q&A session with President Obama. Yes, the President of the United States was answering questions that were coming entirely from Twitter, the formerly stupid service that was a joke, remember?
The most fascinating thing about the event today was how well it worked. A week ago, the White House sent out a press release letting people know about the event and asking that questions be submitted via Twitter using the hashtag “#askobama”. Twitter then teamed with Mass Relevance, used their own algorithms, and assigned curators with political expertise to select the questions that would be asked.
In total, there were some 169,395 tweets with the #askobama hashtag, we’re told.
Much like the debates we see during election cycles, neither Dorsey nor the President knew what questions had been selected ahead of time. What ensued was an in-depth and fairly candid conversation about a range of topics that people actually care about. According to the stats compiled by Mass Relevance, 26 percent of the Tweet questions were about jobs, 19 percent were about the budget, 16 percent were about taxes, 10 percent were about education, and 6 percent were about housing. All of the questions were serious in nature.
And questions were also coming in during the event as well. A few times, Dorsey would select one as fresh as 10 minutes old to ask the President. Often, these would be about an answer the President gave earlier during the event. The President would then further clarify his stance. Realtime.
And a few Tweet questions were selected from well-known political entities as well, such as Speaker of the House John Boehner (a Republican) and New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. Some might have a problem with this, since these people can ask questions of the President basically any time — but the transparency of it happening over Twitter was refreshing.
When the President addressed Boehner’s question on debt and job growth, he was quick to note that his rival’s position is “slightly skewed” in his view, but he still answered it — and then made fun of Boehner’s poor typing skills (which apparently wasn’t his fault).
Of course, townhalls are just about as old as modern politics itself. And technology disrupting politics is nothing new either. Many are still certain that Kennedy won the 1960 election simply because he looked better on TV than Nixon, for example. But somehow Twitter and political discourse just feel right together.
I recall having this conversation during the 2008 political primaries. Again, people were largely divided on the issue at the time — as many were still divided on Twitter, a fact not helped by a myriad of downtime issues that year. But with scaling problems far behind them, events like the one today appear to make the Twitter/politics symbiotic relationship more clear than ever. I suspect that during the 2012 election cycle, things are going to get truly insane (hopefully in a good way).
When you compare today’s event to the similar townhall-style event that Facebook did with the President (at Facebook’s headquarters) earlier this year, I don’t think there is any question that this one was better. To me, the Facebook event was more akin to an old-school MTV townhall, or even a “Rock the Vote” event. Facebook is today’s equivalent of MTV. It’s where politicians go to get “cred” in front of a massive audience. But the events themselves are often of little substance.
Twitter, by comparison, is still a fraction of the size of Facebook. The President doesn’t have to use such an event to push some big agenda or to try too hard to appeal to a certain demographic (though there is still some of that, of course), he can just take and answer serious questions seriously. If you had said four years ago that a Twitter event with the President would come across as dignified, everyone would have laughed. Hell, just using the words “Twitter” and “President” in the same sentence would have brought about uncontrollable laughter. But it worked seamlessly today.
Still, some thought today’s event seemed more of a “meaningless marketing stunt” (of course, the author of that post, Umair Haque, is the same guy who held one of the worst Q&A’s the modern tech world has seen at SXSW two years ago with — wait for it — then-Twitter CEO Evan Williams). To me, today seemed like the logical evolution of the townhall format. Forget the questions from the audience which often range from mediocre to poor and involve the politicians needlessly pandering to the crowd — “thank you SO much for your question, and I too grew up on a farm”. Get a question — the best one from anywhere — answer it, move on to the next one.
When I read a few weeks ago that the President would finally be sending his own Tweets from his account, I too was a bit dubious. Why now? Oh, because there is an re-election campaign kicking off, of course. But to be honest, I was more worried that the President being too accessible via a service like Twitter might in some ways demean the postion — not a popular thing to say, perhaps, but it’s something I suspect many people think. I wouldn’t want a President that Tweets all day.
And again, that’s why I think today’s event was the perfect compromise. The President will Tweet from time to time (undoubtedly often to help his campaign), but he should hold back most responses until he can give them in a more dignified setting — like at the White House during a townhall event. Yes, even one that was technically a “Tweetup” (god that word sounds so lame still). And while questions can be brief, answers on important topics often require far more than 140 characters. This format works.
Twitter is a channel through which everyone can be heard. Yes, you still have to sign up for an account, but that’s free — the barrier to entry for participating in these Q&A sessions has never been lower. That’s a great thing. That’s truly powerful. And the White House is right to respect it.
After today’s event, I went back through some of my old posts about Twitter, trying to recall just how little respect the service got even just a few years ago. Here’s one great example: some wondered if Twitter was going to fail because no one knew about it at a random wedding. Right. (And bonus points to me for that part at the end where I wonder what would happen if the iPhone gained a built-in Twitter button…)
Today I stood in the East Room of the White House with a President. To his left hung the Lansdowne portrait — the White House’s old possession — painted in 1797 (and rescued from the 1814 fire) depicting George Washington. To his right hung the companion portrait of Martha Washington painted in 1878. But front and center was a big screen television showing the Tweets directed at the President.
Twitter, the little service that couldn’t, now has the President’s ear.