President Barack Obama took the unusual step of holding a Twitter “town hall” Wednesday afternoon in an effort to answer questions straight from the minds of ordinary citizens that use the popular media service.
In the days before the event, Twitter users asked questions of the president using the tag “#AskObama.” For the town hall event he sat down with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who read off 18 questions from users – many centered on the economy.
The efforts of Obama and his staff to utilize the Internet are certainly a step in the right direction, providing the average Americans with access to the president. However, the limitations placed on that access undermine the effort.
Of the thousands of questions that were surely submitted, only 18 were selected – two of which came from John Boehner and New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff. Obama will surely benefit from this attempt to connect with younger demographics, yet it is hard to imagine that the concerns of his constituency could be affectively summed up into 140 characters.
What the town hall did provide was an innovative way to communicate with the nation – providing an opportunity to bypass mainstream media outlets such as Fox News and CNN.
A central part of democracy is the ability for constituents to communicate with their elected representatives, and Obama’s administration seems to be extending this to the digital age.
However, such efforts would be much more effective without such strict limitations. Obama held a similar Facebook town hall in April, which was broadcast on the website and on cable news stations. Reaching out to 300 million registered Twitter accounts ias well as 500 million users on Facebook, is a worthwhile way to create a public forum for Americans.
It’s also important to note the benefits Obama himself may reap from these online efforts.
The president’s utilization of social media is in many ways an extension of the strategies of his 2008 election campaign. During that race, he raised an astounding $656 million in individual donations, largely by marketing on social media sites, according to opensecrets.org.
This fact does not seem to be lost on the president and his reelection team. Nearly 22 million users “like” the president’s Facebook page and nearly 9 million are following his Twitter account, which saw it’s first actual tweet from Obama Wednesday.
Dorine Mendoza, the online editor for San Diego’s The North County Times, said to the New York Times that “Twitter can be the great equalizer. It allows anyone to ask the president a question.”
One can only hope her sentiments hold true and provide another venue for those such as the tens of thousands of Tea Party protestors that showed at the Capitol in 2009 or tens of thousands of union supporters who protested earlier this year in Wisconsin to illicit a response from their elected representatives.