Shortly after President Obama wrapped up a town hall-style appearance before a crowd of 1,200 at the University of Maryland on Friday, White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest huddled with a more select audience in the basement of Ritchie Coliseum.
These folks weren’t reporters — not in the traditional sense, anyway — but they could potentially be helpful in spreading the president’s agenda to a wide audience. The group was made up of influential D.C., Maryland and Virginia users of Twitter, and the Obama press team was hosting a “tweetup” to answer their questions about the White House’s use of social media.
Much was made of Team Obama’s deft use of e-mail, YouTube and other social media during his historic 2008 campaign. Now, with his rivals for 2012 wise to the same strategies, Obama’s White House aides are trying to stay a click or two ahead.
On July 6, Obama held a Twitter town hall, answering questions posed to him on the social media network from the East Room of the White House. Aides said the “tweetup” meeting on Friday was the first of a series of events aimed at staying connected to the top “tweeters” across the country.
“It’s something we take very seriously,” Earnest told the group. “Obviously, these are the kinds of things people are interested in. A lot of people get their news from influential people on Twitter.”
The group at Ritchie Coliseum had been carefully selected by the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy after it put out a call for interested participants through the White House’s official Twitter account, said Kori Schulman, the office’s deputy director of digital content.
While Obama answered questions from the audience during Friday’s traditional town hall format, the Twitter group was asked by the White House to tweet their impressions and experiences throughout the event — from picking up their special credentials to their reactions to what Obama was saying. The White House encouraged them to add the Twitter tag #whtweetup, so other Twitter users could follow along with the play-by-play.
“Finally made it to the #WHTweetup. Seats almost filled. I have a good seat, considering I got here more than an hour after doors opened,” wrote an invited Twitter user named Tanya Hutchins.
Alex Howard, whose Twitter name is “@digiphile”, wrote: “Deputy WH press sec told me the president uses his iPad regularly. Unsure if POTUS ever reads any @WhiteHouse @Facebook comments. #WHtweetup”
Even Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley got into the game: “Just arrived at the #UMD townhall. Looking forward to talking about our nation’s most pressing priority--jobs. #whtweetup @whitehouse”
During the discussion with Earnest, the Twitter users pressed him on how the White House measured its influence on the social media networks — were aides just trying to build the largest number of followers (@BarackObama has more than 9.2 million and @whitehouse has more than 2.2 million) and get the most messages “re-tweeted” by other users? Or were there other factors the White House considered?
“It’s not just quantitative,” Earnest said. “We want to have a robust conversation and dialogue.”
When someone asked if Obama reads tweets about himself, Schulman jumped in to say her office does. Earnest noted that Obama reads 10 letters or e-mails from among the thousand that are sent to his office each day.
“But is he on the social networks reading comments at all,” pressed Howard, who has more than 87,000 followers on Twitter, “since writing letters is something most people under 30 do not do?”
“I don’t know if he checks the White House Facebook page or not,” Earnest confessed.
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