Yesterday, President Obama's first-ever presidential forum using Twitter generated substantial media buzz. However the event itself largely failed to deliver any tangible benefits, and ultimately was not an example of what social media can do to provide open and better government.
Here are some observations:
1) Drew Cline of New Hampshire's Union Leader, who helped to curate the event and shared his post-event analysis, said via Twitter, "Amazing how Obama can give such a long answer to such short questions." This comment highlighted the PR-nature of the event. It was more of a stunt than a real attempt to listen and communicate with constituents. Obama answered 18 questions out of about 160,000 submissions. Many were softballs. The event would have been more effective if Obama made it less about him and more about producing responses to citizen questions. Since the administration was using Mass Relevance to filter and sort questions based on relevance and topic, the administration could have accomplished meaningful citizen engagement if it brought a large contingency of government officials out to respond. Instead, the event was more about Obama looking cool than it was about open or good government.
2) The questions were not all that tough. Many were in fact weak. And some that were discussed came from people Obama has regular channels of communication with already. This really missed the point of direct citizen engagement. Some lamented that the Twitter forum allowed Obama to avoid tough questions from the press (Really? Tough questions from the press?), while others said it allowed him take his message directly to the people. I agree with the latter. Twitter and other social media platforms allow for direct communication and interaction with constituents, which makes them less like mass media outlets or press-controlled events. But the questions were not as hard-hitting as they could have been. Granted, the White House did not pre-screen questions, which was certainly a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, if Obama, Twitter and the reporters acting as screeners were all on the same page (hard to believe they were not prior to the start of what was a carefully orchestrated media event), they should have identified the tone of the questions ahead of time. Something more like the prime minister's questions in England, instead of a canned infomercial.
3) Lastly, courtesy of the Boston Herald and some of my own reading, here are some tweets that I would have loved to see the President answer:
I am interested to hear what others thought of the Twitter forum. Please email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org