President Obama’s upcoming Twitter townhall on Wednesday, in which Twitter users across the country will be able to ask the president their questions about the economy via brief, 140-character tweets, is being presented as a unique opportunity to hear from voices outside the Beltway. Certainly, Twitter has been a democratizing force around the world this year. But, closer to home, is it really possible to crowd-source a recovery via hashtags?
In places like Egypt and Tunisia, Twitter was used as an organizing and mobilizing force — not as a tool for asking questions of political celebrities. If you take a look at the trending topics on Twitter, it’s easy to see why Twitter has been the one social media platform embraced by entertainment brands and celebrities. On any given day, the top trends typically involve celebrities like Justin Bieber, Charlie Sheen, Daniel Radcliffe and sometimes a combination of two or more of them, as in #justinbieberloveswinning.
Moreover, when it comes to the economy, the people who may have the most important questions and suggestions for the President may not be the ones who are already using Twitter. How many 50-year old, unemployed factory workers are using Twitter? There probably aren’t that many — if any at all. And most people are not aware of the various Twitter conventions — like hashtags — that enable their tweets to bubble to the surface. Ultimately, Twitter may be a limiting, not inclusive, platform for the very people the Twitter Townhall intends to empower.
This is not to say that politicians can’t use Twitter effectively as part of a broader social media outreach strategy. After all, the Obama team brilliantly used social media as part of their 2008 campaign. Even Vice President Joe Biden (@VP) now realizes the importance of Twitter. He tweeted for the first and, so far, only time on July 4.
It will be interesting to see whether other social media platforms emerge as key organizing and fundraising tools for the 2012 campaign. It’s a safe bet that mobile will play a larger role than ever before. At this year’s SXSW event in Austin — an event that typically offers an early look at upcoming digital trends — group messaging tools like GroupMe, which enable small groups of users to communicate and plan their activities via text messages, were widely considered to be the “next Twitter.” Once you add a fundraising layer over this mobile communication layer, it’s easy to see how similar platforms could become a powerful grassroots-mobilizing tool for any politician — not just @BarackObama.