Kristina Bowman

Guest Post: Today, President Obama participated in the first White House Town Hall on Twitter. The White House asked people to participate by sending their questions via Twitter using the hashtag #askobama.

Social media have introduced two-way direct communication and Obama used the town hall as a way to harness this real-time communication. The town hall was broken into three sections: questions that had “risen to the top” by being retweeted, follow-up questions to Obama’s responses, and opinions that were voiced during the town hall that Obama had the chance to respond to.

The event felt more like a real-time conversation than a town hall hosted by Facebook and moderated by CEO Marc Zuckerburg in April, which included questions submitted in advance.

Tweets leading up to the event were flooding in so fast that the feed on http://askobama.twitter.com/ was impossible to follow. In addition to a Twitter algorithm that looked for a high number of retweets, Twitter recruited a list of journalists to curate questions and responses in real time. According to the New York Times blog Media Decoder, Twitter officials said they looked to journalists as curators to help make sure questions reflected geographic diversity.

In advance of the town hall, Republicans used the hashtag as a way to voice their opposition to Obama’s policies. For example, Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, tweeted: “Why is your administration supporting the NLRB’s job killing policies in South Carolina?”

Jack Dorsey, Twitter founder, introduced the session with a reference to the use of Twitter around the world to engage people in conversation and action. Twitter and other social media have been credited with helping to facilitate the so-called Arab Spring.

Dorsey said that 27 percent of the tweets were about jobs, 10 percent were about education and 6 percent were about housing.

Presidents have historically looked for ways to incorporate modern communication channels. For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his “fireside chats” as a means of addressing the American people directly via radio transmissions during the Great Depression.

Obama said he was going to make history by live tweeting at the beginning of the town hall. “It’s only 140 characters,” Dorsey joked as the president appeared to be deep in thought. The town hall audience was also composed of 140 people — followers of the White House Twitter feed who signed up for a chance to attend.

Dorsey referred to a screen behind the president that displayed a map of the U.S. showing where tweets come from and the concentration of topics.

One of the most interesting parts of the town hall was the inclusion of follow-up questions. For example, after Obama talked about underwater mortgages, a follow-up question was posed by “Shnaps”: “Is free-market an option? RT @whitehouse: Obama on homeowners underwater: Have made some progress, but+ needed, looking at options.”

Twitter seemed to rely heavily on its curators for these follow-up questions and the responses that followed.

The last 20 minutes included response Tweets with a chance for Obama to respond. For whatever reason, the Official Q&A did not include these responses in its stream. I don’t think they were quite sure how to handle posting of these responses on Twitter.

On CNN’s live blog, Shawna Shepherd observed that “Obama answers at least twice as many questions at twitter @townhall than he usually answers at news conferences in same time frame.”

The amount of advance preparation and coordination that Twitter put into the event obviously made a huge difference in the quality of the town hall. Whether they were truly representative of all #askobama questions will be an important question to answer.

Kristina Bowman works at the University of Washington Department of Communication, helping faculty and students use new media. Follow her on Twitter @kris_bowman

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