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Getting Our "Open for Questions" Legs: Making Sense of the WhiteHouse.gov Experiment

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, March 26 2009

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the White House new media team is emerging triumphant from...Lemme try again. Like General George Washington's revolutionary soldiers, counted out after their rations dwindled and they couldn't get their email working...Nevermind. The point is, after a predictably slow start, the White House's new media operation is being seen in a new light as a result of today's Open for Questions online forum. "The Obama technological and organizational dynamo," writes the Washington Times' Jon Ward, "is beginning to hit its stride." And the inaugural effort does seem to be attracting eyeballs and interest. As the Washington Post's Jose Antonio Vargas notes, participation has nearly doubled in the last 24 hours. In the day and a half the question round remained open, OFQ pulled in about 93,000 people, 104,000 questions, and 3.6 million votes. (Perhaps proof of Organizing for America's sustained organizing might?) And as is the natural order of things, questions about legalizing marijuana have risen to the top of the heap, as Wired's Nicholas Thompson notes. But the White House was clever enough to leave itself a bit of wiggle room in what questions it will address. ("[T]he President will...answer some of the most popular questions...") Obama et al have shown a willingness to adjust the rules of online free-for-alls to align them with workably common-sense thinking. The White House isn't Digg, and it's likely our own thinking about what's an acceptable way to run a virtual presidential town hall will come to conform to theirs. Of course, Open for Questions belongs to the American people -- not just progressives or liberals or Democrats. And isn't just the playground for Organizing for America or MoveOn. The Next Right's Patrick Ruffini, cleverly sees an opening: "With a little organizing, this is an opportunity for Republicans to vote up questions that hold Obama accountable for ballooning the national debt to $20 trillion by 2019."