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How to Make Obama #AnswertheQuestion at the White House Twitter @Townhall

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, July 5 2011

Here's what to watch for during the "First Ever Twitter @Townhall at the White House," whose theme is supposed to be jobs and the economy:

  • Will Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey manage to ask Obama more than 8 questions over the hour, beating the record set during the April 20 Facebook "townhall"?
  • Will President Obama or Dorsey make a disparaging joke about marijuana legalization?
  • Will the ever-dapper Dorsey be wearing a pocket square?
  • Will any question about top economic adviser Larry Summers' work for Obama include mention of his new gig as a member of the board of Dorsey's new company, Square? Indeed, will Summers' name even get mentioned?
  • Will anyone go off script?

Seriously, while I am all for government embracing social media, I am not holding my breath expecting any surprises from this "townhall." As with the other White House "townhalls" the audience in the room has been told that they will probably not be able to ask questions. But unlike similar previous experiments by the White House (picking a few questions generated on Google Moderator, taking questions from Steve Grove of YouTube, and taking questions from Zuckerberg at Facebook HQ), this one is a tad more open to possible surprises, simply because Twitter is a much more open platform.

Questions, we're told by the Twitter blog:

"...will be selected both in advance and in real-time during the event. To narrow down the list of popular, relevant questions to ask on behalf of Twitter users, we’re doing the following:
• We’ve partnered with Mass Relevance to curate, visualize and integrate conversations for the event.
• Algorithms behind Twitter search will identify the Tweets that are most engaged with via Retweets, Favorites and Replies.
• A team of seasoned Twitter users with experience discussing the economy will help flag questions from their communities through retweets."

In theory, if enough people are watching during the live event, and Obama really starts to filibuster (as he usually does), users could spread an #answerthequestion hashtag alongside the #askobama official tag, and that bit of feedback must might influence the course of the discussion, or the post-"townhall" coverage. But otherwise, in all likelihood we're going to be treated to some pretty live charts, and the site of Jack Dorsey reading questions picked out of the Twitter stream by his team of moderators, who I bet could do a pretty good job asking their own direct questions if allowed.

The one thing that is missing from this event, as with all the other stabs by the White House at using new technology to engage the public, is a genuine feedback loop. Right now, there is no downside to Obama filibustering. Nor is there a downside if he avoids answering a question, other than the ongoing sense the public has of a disconnect--but that most of us lamentably assume as a given of today's politics.

It wouldn't be that hard for Twitter to fix this if they want. Its search tool already filters for rudimentary expressions of approval or disapproval (try searching for "#askobama :)" or "#askobama :(." Of course, this kind of sentiment analysis is much too blunt an instrument to use. But imagine if Dorsey said tomorrow that after each Obama answer, he wanted Twitter users to tweet a simple Yes or No along with the hashtag "#didObamaanswerthequestion." Timestamps could take care of the rest.