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Obama's Facebook "Townhall": What Exactly Was That?

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, April 21 2011

Yesterday, you might have heard, the President of the United States sat down for a chat in Palo Alto. It was billed as a "Facebook townhall." Over the course of the afternoon, Obama fielded a handful of questions, many quite policy dense -- on whether the White House has lost its focus on jobs, on what in retrospect he'd have done different on health care, on what the administration is doing to help get Americans into their first homes. Obama's answers were substantive. An otherwise uncritical Mark Zuckerberg (he led into his question on education policy by detailing how highly he thought of Race to the Top) muttered after one lengthy Obama response, "that was a very thorough answer." But mostly, there was undeniably a group hug aspect to the whole thing. Obama playfully kidded a dressed-up Zuckerberg into taking off his sport coat as they kicked things off, and the event wrapped with Zuckerberg gifting Obama a purple Facebook-branded hoodie.

The event got a lot of attention in tech circles, political circles, and amongst people just intrigued by the whole thing. Here are a few of todays reviews and recaps, the first from the New York Times' Jackie Calmes:

President Obama on Wednesday opened a Western front in his war against House Republicans' budget, telling an appreciative audience at Facebook headquarters here that the plan is radical, short-sighted and would reduce annual federal deficits at the expense of the nation's poor and powerless.

Vanity Fair's Juli Weiner:

Yesterday afternoon, as part of his rad Shared Responsibility and Shared Prosperity nationwide tour, President Obama visited with Mark Zuckerberg and his Friends™ at Facebook's California offices. The president's Q&A was live-streamed on the White House's Facebook page. Maybe you didn't see it, as users were required to first "Like" the White House page and RSVP to the event before getting to watch it.

The San Francisco Chronicle's Benny Evangelista:

Despite the promise that President Obama's first Facebook town hall would open a new level of two-way communication with his constituents, social-networking technology didn't add much to the conversation.

During the event, I asked on Twitter for suggestions on what to call this whole thing, since the concept of "townhall" as understood in American politics was, in my opinion, a rather poor fit. The suggestions that came in were a mix of snark, earnestness, and just plain 'ol creativity: FaceHall, PR stunt, Facesimile, Townhall 2.0, Scripted Conversation, Internet Townhall, Facessembly, and, a particular favorite of mine, 3-D Status Update.

My question might have read as cynical to some, but it was genuine. Just because this wasn't a truly open civic experience doesn't mean that it was worthless; one tweeter said that she thought that "he's reaching a demo[graphic] (according to my friends' posts/tweets) that doesn't normally pay attention." And there's something to be said for that. But mostly, speaking personally, I just didn't get it. If this was meant to be a public conversation, why take so few questions from the web? Was the point here to give Facebook employees a chance to interact with the president, while we watch? Did it really make sense to have Zuckerberg, the owner of the platform, ask the questions (and, it seems, possibly pick them)? For all those people newly paying attention, you have to wonder whether they were encouraged to come back and do it again. In a bit of bad timing for both the White House and Facebook, this happened to be the day that all over the news were comments of a Facebook staffer suggesting that perhaps they had been allowing "too much, maybe, free speech" in countries not accustomed to the free flow of information we enjoy here in the States.

The concern is that the message they came away with was that want happened yesterday was a chance for Obama to benefit from the glamour of Facebook Inc., and vice versa -- and at the risk of being overly dramatic, an event that should reduce citizens' cynicism about the insularity of American politics instead goes some small way in justifying it.