A different kind of townhall

A curious thing happened at the White House’s first Twitter townhall. No one watched the president.

The guests on Wednesday were too busy sending tweets, flashing twitpics and hash-tagging on the micro-blogging site to look up from their smartphones. Such is the new world of social media.

Obama even got in on the action and sent a live tweet, a short message in 140 characters or less. And he patted himself on the back for being the first president in history to do so.

With an oil portrait of George Washington behind him in the White House’s East Room wall, Obama also took more than a dozen questions served up on a large flatscreen monitor and read by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.

As expected, Obama did not break new ground in his views on the deficit and creating jobs. The event has been hailed more as a way for the president to reach new voters ahead of the 2012 election. Twitter, in exchange, gets a high-level endorsement of its importance.

“There’s a lot to gain for Obama and Twitter,” said Guy Kawasaki, a Silicon Valley venture capital investor. “The inherent message is that the president is open to communication with anyone in the world with a Twitter account.”

But the townhall differed from previous White House events at Facebook and via YouTube. Twitter went to lengths to explain how questions were “crowdsourced” or chosen from the most popular among its Twitter populace of 200 million users worldwide. Dorsey said that of the thousands of questions that were posed, the company chose those that were most “retweeted,” or repeated, such as one by House Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), known as @speakerboehner on Twitter. He asked, “Where are the jobs?”

Obama joked: “This is a slightly skewed question.” And then launched into a long-winded reply to Bohner’s question, which had been posed within the Twitter limit of 140 characters.

At the end of his minutes-long response, Obama quipped, “Eventually, I’m sure the speaker will see the light.”

Interactions such as that showed the lopsided nature of the townhall, which the White House dubbed as a “discussion” between the president and Americans. It provided a platform for Obama to repeat his positions on the economy with little follow-up from the moderator and Twitter users.

But other elements showed the powerful uses of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook that put traditional polling services to shame. Twitter could capture in real time what followers cared about most. Monitors in the East Room showed ever-changing bar charts of subjects Twitter followers wanted to address. Jobs topped the list, followed by the economy and education.

Dorsey delivered questions on the high cost of higher education, energy policy to lessen reliance on foreign oil and how manufacturing fits into the White House’s push to create jobs.

“It’s great that Apple made the iPod and iPads ... but it would be great if it also was making those in the U.S.,” Obama said.

The event was the administration’s latest attempt to spread its message to ever more forms of media. Twitter’s fast growth and affluent user base make it an attractive platform for campaigning. It also puts the San Francisco-based company in a basket of highly valued firms readying themselves for a public offering. Some analysts estimate that the private company could be valued at as much as $7 billion in an initial public offering.

A look around the townhall shows the popularity of these nascent communications services.

In the back were the traditional White House press corps, snapping photos on long lens cameras while the audience took their own on iPhones and Blackberries. Reporters scribbled notes while balancing smartphones to send their own tweets.

But with a 140-character limit, the service will come easier to some than others.

Obama said, “I am supposed to be short but ... ”

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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