When Twitter reached out to me and asked me to be a “curator” for today’s town hall with President Obama, I agreed, assuming that the event would turn out as many town-hall forums do: mostly softballs and “What are you going to do for me, specifically?” questions. I figured that the only way to have a shot at improving it would be to participate. That assumption was, I think, generally correct.
The first question from a Twitter user — Obama asked himself the first question, because he thinks of himself the way Homer Simpson thinks of donuts: “Is there anything they can’t do?” — was one I retweeted from a conservative blogger here in New Hampshire. He asked Obama, as Bush was asked about Iraq, what mistakes he had made on the economy and what he would do differently. Good question. Telling answer. Obama said his biggest mistake was not communicating effectively that recovery will take a really long time. Same “mistake” he made with health-care reform, it turns out. Isn’t it interesting that Obama, this celebrated communicator, claims to believe that he doesn’t communicate well?
Alas, for the next hour there were a few more good questions but also a lot of softballs and a lot of questions from people of a more liberal political persuasion than most of the country. I don’t think that was because the Twitter staff wanted liberal questions. I think it was because, one, the White House heavily promoted this event, so a lot of the participants (perhaps a majority) were Democrats or independents who generally think favorably of the administration. Two, there was a strange dearth of participation from conservatives. Virtually none of my conservative Twitter followers asked questions. When I sent direct messages asking people why they weren’t participating, several responded that they didn’t think their question would be answered, or that they didn’t think Obama could fix the economy so why ask him about it. That defeatist attitude made this event less interesting, and let the president skate through with less of a challenge.
I think the leftward tilt of the questions was compounded by whatever program Twitter used to track question-topic trends. Education was trending high, for example, when it doesn’t poll very high these days.
Although the question selection was disappointing, I thought the event went better than many so-called national town-hall meetings do, and about par with what you would expect from an event like this. The general public is never going to ask a high volume of really sophisticated political questions that make political insiders nod their heads and say, “Good question.” And if you have a program that weights questions by volume and chooses ones that are representative of the majority, then you’re going to get more average questions than above-average ones.
I hope that Twitter uses this experience to improve future town halls with presidents or other national figures. Already Twitter staff are asking how they can make these events better. For a test flight, this one could have been better, but really, it could have been a lot worse.