Observing Obama’s First Twitter Town Hall Live

Attending the first Twitter Town Hall at the White House last week was quite an experience! For the first time, a President — Barack Obama — answered questions from digital citizens across America on the microblog network. The Townhall was the third social network appearance by the President, the first ones hosted on YouTube and Facebook. The new format with Twitter was a massive public event, inspiring 40,000 questions, and of course, some criticism.

Twitter Founder Jack Dorsey interviewed the President using questions he hadn’t seen before, some of which came in live. Less than 20 questions were answered, a primary source of criticism. Two of these questions came from well known sources, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner and New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristoff. Questions were qualified by popularity via algorithm, and then hand-picked by eight curators.

To not include a Republican question would have been partisan, and in the spirit of the medium and prior analysis, it is likely Boehner’s tweet was significantly retweeted by the GOP’s user base. What better way to handle issues of partisanship than to answer Boehner’s question? This seems like a smart move.

Similarly, Kristoff’s question was highly retweeted. However, this curator decision seemed more questionable. In that sense, curation models should be reviewed if there is another Twitter Town Hall. Further, none of us in actual attendance got to ask questions, unless of course our Tweets successfully navigated the same curation process.

As to the number of questions that were aired, this show demonstrated why mass media forms are still needed. Given the length of time Obama takes to respond to questions, it is impossible to answer more. Simply put, one man cannot scale on a national level.

Perhaps, Twitterati and critics feel like every question deserves a customer response from the White House. However, this is currently impossible. The 2008 Obama election team had 200 online representatives working for them. The White House has a handful. Maybe Twitterati can ping the GOP to fund a Twitter customer response department for the White House. Will Speaker Boehner be open to such initiatives in the face of the debt ceiling debate?

An Authentic President?


Another criticism of the event was the lack of authenticity the President demonstrated. Pundits slammed Obama for providing mostly stock position answers that one can find on the White House site.

Yet, sitting across from the President provided a view of his face. Obama was present, authentic and real, and frankly, his mannerisms were captivating. Most live attendees were busy using their phones and computers, but many paused to simply watch and listen to Obama for a few questions. He clearly looked directly in people’s eyes, and smiled slightly, acknowledging their presence.

There were several questions he laughed at, and one from a person called “Shnaps” that he struggled a little to hold his composure on. You can see the President become visibly shaken when Welfare programs were challenged by a Twitter user. The President also had a little fun at Speaker Boehner’s expense, who had a computer generated typo in a tweeted question.

In all, if it was authenticity people were looking for and not political gloss, then maybe it’s time to look at the expectation. To expect the current top elected official in the United States to appear rough, unpolished, and casual in the midst of the worst budget crisis in the country’s history, and the most severe economic downturn in 80 years is sophomoric at best. Perhaps Twitter authenticity is best left to the “Shnaps” of the world, and the President is exactly as he should be given his job.

Further, Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush demonstrated an authenticity that many Americans felt hurt the Office of the Presidency. He was an authentic a-hole who refuted questioning about his policies with indignant public anger, and bullied his worst outspoken critics with questionable uses of political power. Conversely, Obama answers criticism.

Additional Observations

The First Presidential Tweet

Obama posted the first live Presidential tweet in history, a very cool moment. Watching him type, he reviewed the tweet several times. It was clear that he wasn’t the type of fellow that haphazardly shoots off emails and tweets.

Afterwards, the President shook hands with those of us in the front row. He has very soft hands.

The bathrooms in the White House are pretty swanky. Just saying.

All in all, the atmosphere was electric. From the moment attendees lined up outside the White House and waited in the main hall listening to the piano, to the excitement of the actual question and answer session and the applause that closed the event, attending the Twitter Town Hall in person was something special.

As a long-term Washington resident, it has been a dream to visit the White House and meet a sitting U.S. President. To have that dream come true was simply amazing, a moment to remember and tell family about.

What did you think of the Twitter Town Hall?

19 thoughts on “Observing Obama’s First Twitter Town Hall Live

  1. I enjoyed it. A close friend of mine mentioned that Shnaps guy or whoever he was and tweeted something like “this is a joke”. And I understand why some people may have felt that or challenged the questions, or any of that. 

    But I believe a lot of that missed the point. Government is run by committee, and expecting perfection out of an organization is just as silly as expecting perfection from a person. And having occasionally lived abroad… in Africa specifically a few times… 

    The privilege of being able to even virtually attend an event of historical significance moved me. And I was so happy and proud that people that you and Shireen were there to represent the events to us… Its amazing how far we’ve come. It’s so, so important that this is even happening. 

    We’re going to be brought closer and closer to having a direct impact on government on all levels… because one day, some people were sitting at their kitchen table, or in their bedrooms thinking how neat it would be if it were possible for us to communicate with each other by typing into boxes. 

    • I think including Shnaps was perfect. It was the ideal example of Twitter, and its silliness, and at the same its representative nature of us as Americans. Who knows what Shnaps does in real life, right?

      Anyway, thanks for the positive comment. I agree, it is good that Obama is making himself more accessible directly, albeit, there is the scaling issue. How that changes Democracy in the United States remains to be seen. We do know it is having significant global impact already!

  2. Very cool that you were there Geoff. I’m sure it was quite a moment to be there and shake hands with the President. Serious congratulations on that. Thanks for this analysis of it. I watched as much of it on the feed as possible – it went down a couple of times.

    I guess I do wonder about the choice of the forum for this Town Hall. I’m surprised it was ‘only’ 40,000 questions but I always thought that the volume of questions versus how many could be answered was going to be a bit of problem – get real people. 

    I wasn’t all that impressed with it and not just because the feed failed. I saw this as more a campaign event than a real town hall. He did a great job sticking to his messages – and that is his job. But I don’t agree with perception that this was new, different, more open, closer to the people because he sent a tweet. 

    Other than funny user names and typos what was different from a press conference with the MSM? And, frankly, given his position that is what it had to be. So, did this do more than create an illusion of being closer to ‘us’ and listening to ‘us’? It didn’t work for me. 

  3. Uh…where are the pictures of the swanky bathrooms?! Priorities, Livingston!

    I’m really jealous you had this opportunity. What a very cool life experience! And I appreciate how you talked about the criticism as well as your own opinion.

    The one thing I took away? We live in this world where we expect Steve Jobs to answer our emails and the President of the United States to tweet us. But, let’s be real, it’s impossible to do that, run a business (or a country), and not have something fall through the cracks.

    • Yeah, in some ways the social revolution reminds me of a baby who cries. At first, you respond to everything. As time passes it becomes impossible/ or not right to give the baby everything. For example, cries about bath time. So it is with demands for attention on the social web.

      • I can’t picture your baby girl making a fuss over anything, most especially bath time! She’s perfect and cute and cuddly all the time, and you can’t tell me otherwise! :)

  4. What did I think? Well, I thought it was interesting, but I also stayed rather much away from it on Twitter. Much like currently I am staying away from a chat that I know will be sort of formulaic and weird because of who is there. I like my Twitter experience like I like my food – off the cuff.

    I will say that I think it was brave of Obama to do this, but also perhaps silly in a PR way. There is no way to please everyone in politics or in the online world. If you mix the 2? You’re bound to tick off more people than you make happy. 

    • Yes, it’s a 51% game, and I find Twitter to be the snarkiest of all the socnets, so it is a bit of walking into a wolf’s den.  All in all, it could have been worse.

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  6. Geoff, thanks for sharing your experience. I think we (generally speaking) maintain unrealistic expectations and forget the weight of the office. If a President looks unpolished or “authentically” on the fence, the opposition or other countries will seize that to score political points or to use as a bargaining chip. Sometimes, we all need a reality check.

    So glad you had a positive experience. Great recap! And, like @ginidietrich:disqus I’m a little jealous you got to experience this in-person! :)


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