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America's Got Questions

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 1 2010

This week and last, we've been treated to a veritable mini-explosion of examples of how a thoroughly modern American president just might engage with the rest of the republic. First, last week we had Obama's gripping Q&A with House Republicans. The general consensus was that that was exciting stuff. And then there's the fact that this afternoon -- 1:45pm EST -- Obama will do a live interview where the questions have come from thousands of Americans who posted their thoughts to YouTube, loosely pegged to last week's State of the Union address.

But wait a minute -- if government worked more like it did in that charmed hour-and-a-half we witnessed in Baltimore on Friday, why do we need to "crowdsource" the job of questioning the President of United States to the people of what is, on paper, a representative democracy? (Especially when you think about the fact that this might have been the first time a rank-and-file Republican actually had the chance to ask Obama a question.) That's not, if we do say ourselves, an unworthy question. But it's completely possible to look at what's happening today with the YouTube Q&A, and the 11,700 questions posed and vetted by more than 55,000 Americans as wonderfully complementary to the excitement that went down in Baltimore the other day. This is a rich, verdant media universe we find ourselves in today, and when it comes to adding to the conversation, House Republicans bring a great deal to the table, and Americans without official political position or title do so as well.

If Friday's session was the ultimate in inside baseball -- the airing of complaints over whether proposal X,Y, and or Z have been given short shrift by Congress' Democratic leadership, and so on -- then we might think about the niche that YouTube questioning of the President fills as being wonderfully "outside baseball."

Said YouTube in its teaser for the project, "This is your opportunity for an exclusive interview with the President." Many of the questions that regular ol' people chose to have asked in that interview are focused less on policy intricacies or personality battles as they are on getting Obama's perspective on some of politics' bigger questions. It's probably fair to say that a coherent picture of just how Obama is approaching the world these days hasn't been overly evident in the just-wrapped first year of his presidency. As much as anything else, the YouTube Q&A round is looking like a chance to probe Obama's world view.

For example, questions that have risen to the top of the voting include ones on what Obama makes of the idea that corporations are embed with "personhood," the paradox of graduate education being both almost a job requirement and financially unattainable for many Americans, and whether providing universal health coverage is a moral obligation.

Americans have participated in the YouTube challenge at a rate that compares well to what happened during the White House's first high-profile experiment with an "Open for Questions" format that wrapped almost a year ago to the day. When voting wrapped yesterday, some 55,000 people had voted 643,000 times on those 11,700 questions.

One observer involved in the project picked up on an interesting quirk. Just fewer than half of the number of people participated in the YouTube State of the Union challenge as participated in Round One of Open for Questions, and there were roughly a third of the votes this time around -- but this iteration has attracted just one-ninth of actual video and text question submissions. Might Americans, either by inculturation or software tweaking, be actually devoting more time and attention this time around to vetting and voting on their neighbors questions? If so, that might point to a positive evolution in these crowdsourcing platforms, where people are actually collaborating on bubbling up useful questions to the top, rather than going every-person-for-themselves. A Google rep declined to speculate on why we're seeing a lower person to question ration ratio this time around.

Some people intimately involved in the process suggest that this version of Google Moderator will eventually be looked back on as as crude a collaboration system as, say, scratching scores on a dart board in chalk. But it is a step. YouTube News and Politics editor Steve Grove calls the format "engaging and unique."

What about the Mary Jane rule, first postulated right here on this blog, that holds that in any online voting forum, questions about marijuana legalization will float to the top? It's not holding all that true here. Questions on weed are certainly in the mix, but they're not dominating this time around like the did in the inaugural Open for Questions.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer recently explained to Politico how the Obama White House is eager to test out new models and approaches as it attempts to figure out just how to engage in this brave new world. "People are more involved and more interested in getting a lot of information and processing it," said Pfeiffer. "Where are they getting it? How are they doing it? And so we spend a lot of time experimenting, thinking of ways in which we communicate with people beyond your traditional methods."

Some of the participants in the YouTube State of the Union experiment, at least, don't seem to suspect anything mutually exclusive between today's citizen Q&A at the White House and more iterations of the session between Obama and elected Republicans we saw take place last week. Kenny Wyland, wearing a "Got Hope?" t-shirt put this to the President: "I saw your question and answer with House Republicans, and it was brilliant. I'm very proud to have such an intelligent president. When can we see your next televised meeting with Republicans?"

The New York Times' Brian Stelter has a good piece on this. And you can watch the question and answer session live today at 1:45pm EST on WhiteHouse.gov/Live.