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Having a 'conversation' with President Obama via Twitter

July 5, 2011 |  5:31 pm

Obama Whatever you think of the Obama administration, you have to concede that it's brought change to the White House communications playbook. In addition to the obligatory blog, the White House has its own YouTube channelFacebook page  and Twitter feed.  President Obama has also done one "town hall" meeting  on Facebook  and several others through YouTube (such as this one  in 2009 on healthcare reform).

On Wednesday, Obama will conduct a town hall meeting on Twitter with a focus on jobs and the economy. Except that that it won't exactly be on Twitter; Obama, who seems incapable of answering even yes-no questions in 140 characters or less, will deliver his answers into a microphone in the East Room of the White House. Video of the event will be webcast live at a special Twitter site,  although some 30 invited guests will be in the room to tweet about it as it happens.

As someone who seems incapable of asking anything in 140 characters or less, my hat's off to the thousands of people who've submitted questions for the event. You can too by tweeting your question and the hashtag #AskObama.  It's a shame that Obama won't be forced to be similarly concise; viewers will be lucky if the president answers a dozen questions in the hour allotted.

White House and Twitter officials say the questions that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey asks won't be chosen by the administration. They won't be chosen by Dorsey either. Instead, they'll be selected by a team at Twitter that will look for what amounts to the most popular questions in the Twitterverse. The team will be guided by three types of information: data analytics company Mass Relevance will identify the hottest topics  by region; Twitter itself will detect the questions getting the most bounce online (through retweets and the like); and more than a dozen regional curators selected by Twitter will pick their favorites out of the torrent of tweets.

That may prove to be a fair way to draw a representative sampling of 10 to 15 questions out of thousands of submissions, although it's no guarantee that the system won't be gamed by a group or individual with copious Twitter followers. One can only imagine how many #AskObama tweets Glenn Beck could generate, for example, or Stephen Colbert. Actually, I'm a little surprised that Republicans haven't tried to tee up a question along the lines of, "Why did the stimulus fail to keep unemployment below 8%, as the White House predicted?"

But I'm less interested in the questions than in how Obama's responses will be parsed and debated by Twitter users. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer noted that unlike traditional media, Twitter is interactive. After Obama answers a question, people will answer back. Or as Macon Phillips, the White House director of new media, told reporters, "It is a president-to-country conversation."

More accurately, it is a conversation started by Obama but carried on largely by the people. That's not a wholesale shift from what's been happening already; after a White House news conference, the president's statements often get hashed out among friends, co-workers and political junkies. The difference this time is that all the peanut galleries will have a shared stage -- Twitter -- on which they can gather in real time.

The unexpurgated results will be available on Twitter. Mass Relevance will also be "aggregating and filtering questions marked with the hashtag #AskObama, and integrating the most relevant conversations for http://askobama.twitter.com,"  the company announced.  "The site will feature Tweets with questions and discussion from across the Twitterverse, as well as a livestream of the event and a window where people can tweet their questions for President Obama."

It remains to be seen whether the event will be more interesting than the last time Obama took questions from the White House press corps.  One thing's for sure: The questions will be a lot shorter.

-- Jon Healey

Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images

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