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A Tweet Experiment for All Involved: My First Hand Account of the White House Twitter Town Hall & Tweetup

BY Becky Kazansky | Thursday, July 7 2011

President Barack Obama and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey during a Twitter-hosted, town hall-style event Wednesday. Photo: Becky Kazansky / techPresident

Yesterday I was at the White House to participate in the first ever White House Twitter Town Hall (you can read my account of how I ended up there here). It was surreal — perhaps as much for me as for the coordinators. As I introduced myself by my Twitter handle @pondswimmer afterwards, at a round-table discussion stewarded by White House New Media Director Macon Phillips, CTO Aneesh Chopra, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Phillips exclaimed to me: "You tweeted from the Megabus! You made it real — they're really coming!" Could they have had any doubt?

Once in the White House, we invited attendees, with apparent permission (or lack of enforcement of the no-photo rule) commenced a frenzy of smartphone photo ops — many posing at the mirrors of the State Dining Hall to get the ultimate “Myspace photo.” Shortly after that, Kori Schulman, Associate Director of New Media at the White House and coordinator of the Tweetup, seated us in the right corner section of the East Room.

The official press positioned themselves with nary a spare inch behind 20 high definition cameras and a velvet rope — from which they stared at me and my seat neighbors, squinting, pens poised over reporter notebooks, iPhone and professional-grade digital cameras pointed, trying to place our collective group of “randoms.”

The “random” I found myself seated next to is Lex Friedman, staff writer at Macworld, who, while of dry wit, experienced a star-struck moment when we stood for the President's entrance past our row — he blogs: “The president of the United States winked at me. And as he did, he extended his hand to me for a shake. We shook. I believe I am now also a member of his cabinet.”

I remember pulling my face up from my phone to suddenly see the POTUS in HYPER definition. The world jumped into focus; I felt slightly weak in the knees.

The POTUS strode up to a podium that held a Macbook Pro--on which a presidential seal sticker covered the Apple logo. (It was the only example of corporate logos getting hidden; Twitter’s obviously was everywhere.) The president asked us to “sit’s much easier to tweet from the seat," breaking a spell after which the mood never quite recovered — due perhaps to the dissociative experience of constantly putting our heads down to train in on little brightly lit squares and perform our officially sanctioned tweeting.

A fellow attendee tweeted that it was “crazy that all of us could tweet while the pres was speaking, most 50yr old men think its rude if I bring my phone to lunch.” At the roundtable later, another participant said "I stopped tweeting in order to listen,” to which Chopra exclaimed, "so we [meaning the White House] sent you conflicting messages!"

Screens and monitors of all forms — which are difficult and awkward to document via photo and video — were set up for viewers of the video stream. You could hear the nonstop click of shutters when President Obama pointed at House Speaker John Boehner's tweet on the monitor behind him. A huge monitor to my right displayed a Topic Tracker visualization, by Mass Relevance and Twitter, showing the geographic distribution of tweets by topic “buckets” like Education and Jobs.

The static setup of the visualizations — with a very occasional switch in Topic Tracker maps — made it hard for me to cross-compare how topic popularity related to geography — and the big hot spots representing concentration of tweets by cities made it difficult to see how the amounts of #askobama questions were racking up real-time.

Perhaps it was more effective from other vantages in the room: a Tweetup attendee later observed, “If you looked at the Housing Topic Chart on the visualization, the most tweets came from states with the most foreclosures ... what people care about in real life was reflected through the tweets.” The Twittersphere “cloud” is tethered to the ground, you could say.

Still, it was unclear who these visualizations were for. Though they were set up for the cameras, people watching the event through the White House website apparently couldn't see very much — I received numerous tweets pleading for more information. In conversation with Kori Schulman afterwards, she told me that to the best of her knowledge it was “whatever got in the shot,” though it's possible the visualizations will become available online in the next week, as Mass Relevance goes through their data. The Twitter @townhall team later said Mass Relevance plans to do a deep analysis of the Town Hall data and will release numbers in next few days.

Of note: While the White House told us it was unlikely any of our questions would be heard, the #askobama question about collective bargaining — “Mr. President, In several states we have seen people lose their collective bargaining rights. Do you have a plan to rectify this?” — was posed by Tweetup attendee Patrick Glynn.

Those of us who were invited guests got to spend some additional time with Phillips, Chopra and Dorsey after the event, and at the round table discussion in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. CTO Chopra, who announced the debut of his new twitter handle @aneeshchopra with a first tweet, opened by asking tweeters to share their highlights. We all seemed to agree that the highlight was watching the President send his first tweet.

In reply to a professor who researches social media saying she got fodder for her research, Chopra quipped, “You're here but you're studying yourself being here!”

A teacher, speaking of the troubles her school faces, said with emotional emphasis that Obama “Made me feel like he knows students shouldn't have to sit with rats and leaky ceilings.” Chopra asked if the school was up for renovation, to which she replied that it's not.

A Stanford University undergraduate felt that the town hall was "not so much addressed towards my generation," to which Chopra replied, "We 100 percent want to hear your comments and concerns.”

The Twitter team in attendance, along with Jack Dorsey, included Sean Garret, VP, Communications, and Adam Sharp, government/politics lead in D.C.

In regards to how questions were surfaced throughout the event, Dorsey underlined that "the data can only take us so far — we need human editing.” In the lead up, he said, the team noticed that some “buckets” or topics had very few questions, while others were overflowing. The team strategy was to ask which terms weren't showing up, and to modify the algorithms and bring in human editing from there.

The Twitter team said that leading up to the final part of the live event, their team, which surfaced seven questions from tweets literally coming in over the course of the event, was sitting in an adjoining room frantically looking for follow-up questions. Adam Sharp, Twitter government/politics lead, said the difficulty came from the fact that real-time tweets were competing with the automated algorithms, underlining Dorsey's point that “we needed human curation," adding, "this is a learning process.”

Macworld writer, Lex Friedman, commented to Dorsey: "This wasn't a reporting event. You didn't pick the questions and you didn't improvise,” asking if this was part of the evolution of a new "pseudo press.” Dorsey, to Friedman, replied, "My 40,000 foot answer is … we keep everything open.”

A participant asked of Dorsey if there'd been any big glitches. Dorsey replied, “No, though we didn't know how to predict how long he (Obama) would take to answer questions." He said the team was “pleasantly surprised to see his average was four minutes less than anticipated … so we were able to get more questions out.”

The Twitter team all left about half way through the roundtable, and CTO Chopra steered questions to policy and spoke at length of his belief that “Data is the rocket fuel of innovation.” He asked Macon Phillips several times to help him keep the length of his answers in check.

As an attendee told me after the meeting, in regard to Chopra’s Obama filibuster-level answers: it felt a bit like "we couldn't get Santa Claus, so here's one of our elves.”

Another attendee I spoke with, however, cast the extensive policy talk in a positive light: "You could see that the social media people are integrated into the policy making of the administration.”

As the roundtable concluded, I asked Kori Schulman to explain how we all ended up together at the White House with the unusual opportunity to get substantive time with Chopra, Dorsey, and Phillips. She replied, “It was a bit of a random selection process ... you were all very active on Twitter, and your answers were compelling.” She said that this time around there were "more local folks,” but that the White House wants to do more Tweetups, with more lead time to get a broader swath of attendees.

"We have immigration roundtables around country, but we haven't used Twitter so much," Phillips, the White House new media director, said of the White House’s social media strategy.

"As for how the event went," he later added, "We feel really good about it.” He said he hopes to "use moments like this to kick the wheel on conversations among Americans,” and said, “My hope is there is more conversation on the internet now than there was before today.”

Phillips thanked us for coming, and said, "We encourage you to keep talking about it, for better or worse.”

If what he meant was that he wants us to talk about it honestly, then he can be happy about my report.

I'd like to note that during the Town Hall, I had to make a conscious effort to look up every couple of minutes and take the room in — original reporting emerges from observation of meatspace — not compulsively tweeting every soundbite.

As you can see, this was a bit of an experiment for everyone involved. Hopefully, there will be more.