Don't Expect Too Much From Social Media Town Halls

Everybody's excited about Obama's Twitter town hall. But what's the real deal?

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Barack Obama is the third most popular person on Twitter. With over 8.9 million followers, the president is a few strides behind Justin Bieber's 10.8 million and Lady Gaga's 11.4 million. But when the White House launches the first ever Twitter Town Hall, @barackobama won't be tweeting. He'll be answering questions tweeted by Americans in what everyone's calling a "conversation" about jobs and the economy, all under the hashtag #AskObama. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey will moderate, and there are all sorts of algorithms and visualization tools that the White House will use both to curate the incoming tweets and to express, somehow, what's going on.

Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post thinks this Twitter thing is a great idea for youth outreach--much needed outreach for president who's no longer as popular as he used to be:

President Obama’s Twitter townhall today amounts to a win-win proposition for a White House looking to hone its message on the still-struggling economy and woo young voters back to the incumbent ahead of the 2012 election.

The event, which is being touted as historic, first-of-its-kind gathering, is already drawing considerable press attention and will be all the buzz of cable news in the runup to the 2 p.m. townhall.

The social media town hall is hardly a shocker, however. As Cillizza points out further down in his blog post about the time that Obama flew out to Palo Alto in April, talked Mark Zuckerberg into putting on a tie and hosted a Q&A session with Facebook's employees. The session lasted an hour, but Obama ended up answering only eight questions, most of them also about the economy, as Mark Zuckerberg moderated. The New York Times called the vibe between the president and the CEO "chummy." Twice. "Obama needs Facebook to help him get re-elected," remarked Dan Lyons at The Daily Beast. "Facebook needs Obama to keep them out of trouble with Congress and countless government agencies. No wonder they’re on each other’s friends list."

For whatever reason, the White House decided not to crowd-source the questions at the Facebook event. That decision may have had something to do with the YouTube Town Hall that the White House hosted with the Google-owned video site in January of this year. In January, Obama invited YouTube to the White House for a sit-down that very much resembles the Twitter Town Hall. Leaving that list of questions completely up to the wishes of the masses, the YouTube community mostly wanted to know about only one thing: the legalization of marijuana. "Of the top 100 most popular questions as rated by YouTube users, 99 are about the drug war or pot," Ryan Grim at The Huffington Post reported just before the event. "Of the next one hundred, 99 are again about drug policy. Somehow, two questions about clean energy made their way into the top 200."

Now it's Twitter's turn. The White House seems like they've beefed up the tech aspect of their latest social media junket. They're employing a trio of tool kits to identify the most relevant questions. A start-up called Mass Relevance will help them aggregate the real-time tweet content into a digestible dashboard of trending topics, top tweets, and so forth. (Mass Relevance does this for big events like the Oscars.) Twitter will also use their search algorithms to surface top tweets. Two hours before the event starts, the top tweet looks smart, if a bit wonky. "When will we end gambling and speculation in the markets and support long term investment with tax of gains no tax on dividends?" asks Richard Gerber, a seemingly regular Twitter user with only 300 followers who actually claims two out of the top three tweets so far. (The White House claims number one.) A team of journalists will also help select the questions, though it's unclear how.

As the White House readies the East Room for the event, we're curious whether or not the town hall will actually produce any news. Town halls tend to serve as opportunities for politicians to pretend like they're answering the  questions that matter to real people, when really audiences tend to be pre-selected, questions scripted and answers boilerplate. At least that's what pundits keep telling us. The social media events, though advertised as something more free-form, essentially amount to the same thing. The maze of algorithms, real-time visualizers and other apparent innovations at play in Obama's Twitter interview cloaks the extent to which this town hall is different. But at the end of the day, if 99 percent of Twitter users asked questions about legalizing pot, we doubt Obama would spend the hour talking about that.

Inevitably, the Twitter junket seems like another hat-tip to Silicon Valley. But Cillizza is right: everybody wins. Obama wins because he'll probably be able to push his talking points on the economy out to a new platform and lots of young people are big fans of Twitter--as well as Facebook and YouTube. Those companies win because they earn a new proximity to the national political dialogue and unbeatable exposure for their brands. The only group that doesn't win are all of the smaller start-ups who haven't had their moment in the spotlight yet. We're dying to see what a Tumblr Town Hall would look like though. Probably lots of questions about what Hillary whispered.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.