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Obama’s Twitter Town Hall and His Guarded, Lame Approach to Social Media

President Obama’s Twitter Town Hall was kind of lame. Admittedly, it wasn’t as lame as I thought it would be. But it still showed the White House has yet to fully embrace social media, at least when it comes to the president himself.

I had expected that Wednesday’s event would unfold like the social media interviews the president has conducted in the past. Steve Grove, head of YouTube News and Politics, has hosted two interviews with the president using text and video questions selected by YouTube users. Aside from a few unique questions (“Who is your favorite mathematician or scientist?”), during those events, I found myself guessing fairly accurately what the president was going to say. An amazing technology met predictable responses.

More recently, the president joined Mark Zuckerberg and Co. for a Facebook town hall. Over the course of an hour, the president fielded just eight questions, four of which were from people who were physically in the room. When a question came from the web, Zuckerberg simply read it to the president, further diluting any sense that Obama was directly responding to regular people. The questions might as well have been sent by the U.S. Postal Service. It was another cutting-edge question-delivery system marred by conventional political theater.

Wednesday’s Twitter event improved on its predecessors by embedding its technology more deeply into the process of the event itself. The president started the show by asking Twitter users a question of his own; he eventually responded to their answers at the end of the program. When the event was turned over to the online questioners, Twitter curators went so far as to allow a few follow-up queries, a first for this type of event. The president also kept his answers relatively short, which allowed him to respond to about two dozen tweets in roughly 70 minutes. Featuring monitors with nifty graphs about the location and topics of the questions, the event had a genuinely “Twitter” feel to it.

Yet, as with previous social media interviews, the president spent most of his time giving standard responses to broadly worded questions. As writer Nancy Scola (@NancyScola) tweeted, “3/4ths of these @townhall questions could be answered by linking people to @whitehouse talking points.” And, while the president’s answers were briefer, they still weren’t brief, especially by Twitter’s standards. (To his credit, the president acknowledged this at one point, saying, “I know [on] Twitter I’m supposed to be short.”)

What could the White House have done differently? It could have nixed the town hall idea altogether. If the president truly wants to truly embrace social media, he should use those technologies to respond to questions regularly—not just solicit them when his administration deems it time. Perhaps he could respond to Facebook comments occasionally or answer questions from the web in batches of short YouTube videos, in the style of the Old Spice Guy (as in, the way he did video responses, not necessarily with the same humor).

Or perhaps the president could answer questions on Twitter on a consistent basis, using @ replies to engage and maybe even debate regular citizens and politicians alike. The @BarackObama account rarely acknowledges the existence of other Twitter users and could hardly be called conversational. And, although the @WhiteHouse account did nicely summary the president’s answers during the town hall, it’s still somewhat strange that it required a moderator, an audience, and a live-streamed event to produce those tweets. Why not just have the president do more direct tweeting?

The White House, of course, must love these kinds of staged social media interviews. The president gets to appear transparent and innovative while remaining safely within traditional interview formats. His advisers inevitably want to maximize publicity for this seeming transparency by making massive, made-for-TV events out of his social media engagement. So it doesn’t seem likely they’ll push Obama in the direction of better, more realistic online interaction anytime soon.

They (and possibly Obama himself) may also be haunted by what happened during the first-ever CNN/YouTube debate in July 2007, held during the run-up to the presidential primaries. A YouTuber asked if the Democratic candidates would be willing to meet “separately, without precondition …. with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries.” Senator Obama immediately replied that he would, calling President Bush’s unwillingness to talk to America’s enemies “ridiculous.” It was a direct, honest, and perhaps unexpected answer—the kind of response that techno-optimists hoped YouTube would encourage. Senator Clinton, however, immediately characterized Obama’s position as naïve. And, while both candidates attempted to spin the exchange to their own advantage, I’d guess that Obama now wishes he had phrased his answer more carefully.

Perhaps Obama let his guard down that day, just slightly, because of the debate’s novel format. Perhaps the lesson he took away was that he should never to do that again. But, if social media are ever really going to matter in the conversation between the president and the public, the guarded, lame approach Obama has taken won’t cut it.

James Kotecki is a writer and video producer. The Economist called him “probably the world’s foremost expert on YouTube videos posted by presidential candidates.”