Did you #askobama?

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A bunch of microphones on a podium


I participated in the first-ever Twitter @townhall meeting hosted by the White House on July 7. Of course, I wanted to see if my questions would make it to the big screen, but I was more interested in the participation and transparency of the event.

Participants were asked to visit askobama.twitter.com and tweet questions (140 characters or less) using the hashtag #askobama. A social media company, Mass Relevance, analyzed incoming tweets, re-tweets (RT's), and selected questions which were posed to President Obama by Twitter co-creator Jack Dorsey during the live event.

I sent in a few questions of my own, including "@townhall What role do you see open source technology play in the ongoing recovery and future economic development? #askobama." Of course, not too many other people were asking about open source. Most of the questions were focused on creating jobs, the economy, oil dependance/green energy, government spending, taxes, and other hot topics in the U.S.

I was surprised that questions from Speaker of the House @johnboehner and New York Times columnist @NickKristof made it through the selected posts. They have better access to President Obama than you and I, so why let these questions represent people like me? This was supposed to be a social media outreach to everyday users and citizens.

The #askobama stream was hard to track. It was reloading so fast that it I couldn't even read the stream in real-time. What was disappointing was some of the noise from users posting “funny” questions. Really? So many people are pushing for participatory government and yet others can't even take things like this town hall Twitter event seriously.

What about the people who had their questions posted? We sent a message out to several Twitter users who posted questions that were answered by President Obama. Lane Morrison (@almorrison88) asked:

"#askobama What changes to the tax system do you think are necessary to help solve the deficit problem and for the system to be fair?"

How did they feel about being highlighted? Morrison, a graduate student in Civil Engineering at The University of Alabama told us, "It was really cool! Felt like I was getting to talk to the President directly."

That's why I initially joined the town hall meeting—to have a conversation with the President. But for me, it was really about participating in my government. I already participate in my local government, but not much at the Federal level. I had a great experience, even if my specific questions weren't addressed.

What about you? Was it just status quo? Or an enriching social event?

As I reflect on the experience, I know there are a lot of complicated issues. And there are a lot of people with ideas on how to solve them. How can these ideas bubble up to the top? More importantly, how can our governments be inspired to take action to move the needle?

Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and Opensource.com community publications.


Here's a pretty cool infographic: <a href="http://holykaw.alltop.com/by-the-numbers-askobama-twitter-town-hall-inf" target="blank">By the numbers: #AskObama Twitter town hall [infographic]</a> that summarizes the town hall tweet-up.

This was an interesting event for sure. It brings to mind a couple of things:

1. To be heard is important. A large degree of discontent in this country is due to the government following the will of special interest groups rather than the will of the people.

2. The sheer volume of Tweets required moderation by a group of "representatives", very similar to the way our congress is organized.

3. The questions (and possibly the overall venue) seems to indicate a lack of understanding of the separation of powers. It is not the President's job to make the rules. That power belongs to Congress.

I think this event would be much more valuable if the venue were expanded to include all of Congress and that the will of the people (and their questions) be directed to those who are in charge of making the rules.

I thought about #2 as well,

<cite>2. The sheer volume of Tweets required moderation by a group of "representatives", very similar to the way our congress is organized.</cite>

At first, I was a little disappointed that the questions were being "moderated" to some extent, but after thinking about it more, it seemed like a good way to do it. My assumption is that moderators were responsible for finding the trends, then selecting a question from a user who represented the aggregation of the topic.

What never came up were some of the topics that didn't get asked, for example, the legalization of marijuana. I saw a number of tweets/RT's asking about that. No matter how transparent the process is, I don't think a hot button topic like that would have gotten passed any filters.


Your assumption that moderators would find a trend and select a representative opinion is what most people want. The truth is, in this demonstration, as well as in Congress today, the "moderators" are swayed by personal opinion and "other incentives".

In the early years of Congress, delegates were not paid. No one "ran for the office", that would have been deemed inappropriate at the time. Delegates were <strong>nominated</strong> from and by people in the community. If someone accepted, they would leave their farm or business, serve some time in Congress, and then return to their farm or business. Serving in Congress was an act of duty and an obligation to their Country, not a means of earning a living, let alone a career.

A couple of years ago I was surprised during the campaign to find a townhall style meeting streamed using Microsoft technology. I sent an email and received no response (as expected), being frustrated at not being able to view it using my laptop - which runs GNU/Linux.

I'm not sure the Whitehouse would ever publicly embrace open source technologies (although whitehouse.gov does use Drupal - whoo hoo). The mass misperception of FOSS being "socialist" is probably something Mr. Obama would rather distance himself from.


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