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Today's Obama-YouTube Q&A: Moving the Ball Forward [UPDATED]

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, February 1 2010

Today's YouTube event at the White House, starring President Obama, CitizenTube director Steve Grove, and a bunch of user-generated questions from the public, has to be judged a success, in my view.

Yes, as Nancy Scola pointed out here earlier today, there was an element of familiarity to both the questions and the president's answers, which is to be expected. Obama, after all, is still a cautious politician and doesn't necessarily want to make news, or god forbid, new policy, with an offhand remark. And yes, organized groups--ranging from net neutrality advocates at Free Press, to climate change activists at Energy Action, to anti-genocide activists at the EnoughProject--clearly worked the system to get questions they favored voted up into the top tier.

Here's how the Enough Project touts what they did:

Thanks to the overwhelming response from our readers, who amplified their support via Twitter and Facebook, and the help of partners like and Invisible Children, who blasted our message out to their masses of followers, Enough’s question landed at the top of the foreign policy category. Enough intern Alison did the honors, eloquently voicing our collective concerns to the president about the direction of U.S. policy toward Sudan.

So what if Obama's answers were mostly familiar? You have to start somewhere, and before we can get the White House to commit to a regular open event like this, we have to let them test the waters. One assumes they have a higher level of comfort with this approach now that they've done it once.

Same with the power of organized constituency groups to "game" the system. As I've written before, what other part of American democracy isn't also "gamed" by organized interests? There's nothing inherently bad about groups with large numbers of motivated members taking the time to express themselves about a topic, in the hopes that they will be able to get the President of the United States to talk about it, and thus raise the profile of their issue. For a long time, the only way to get your issue onto the national agenda was either by convincing the once-clubby world of Beltway journalists and pundits that it mattered, or by spending enough money to have the same effect. The Internet is a new channel, and a far more open one.

That said, we've still got a ways to go before we see the full potential of the Internet's media of abundance applied to politics and specifically to the topic of engaging the president or other politicians.

First, we need this kind of open forum to be a regular, scheduled event with some clear structure for how it will work. Right now, it makes a lot of sense for organized groups to try to flood the system of posting and voting up questions, because they have no idea when the next forum will be. Were Obama to commit to doing this, say, biweekly, the pressure to "win" a round of questions would go down. In addition, the White House communications team could make clear that it's not going to pick a top-voted question if it--or a close version of it--has already been asked. A regularization of the process could do much to draw out the less popular but equally valuable questions being raised by citizens.

Second, the White House and YouTube should each consider adding an overt feedback loop to enable viewers to improve the process. What did you think of President Obama's answer to each question? And how about inviting people who got their questions asked if they want to post a follow-up? As we saw when we conducted, most politicians tend to use the Internet as another medium through which to simply broadcast their message. But knowing your answers will be rated and judged by your audience--in full public view--can alter that behavior to something more valuable. Similarly, Obama--or his surrogates--can post responses to those follow-ups.

UPDATE: The YouTube blog has a useful description