Last week, President Obama took part in the first "Twitter Townhall" event, hosted in the East Room of the White House. I was on the scene to take it all in. The event led to widespread general coverage (see articles from Forbes and Bloomberg, for example) and what could be considered a public relations boon for the President and for Twitter.
The event was also controversial among elite commentators. Which is to say, the value of the engagement between President Obama and the American people via the Twitter social media platform was controversial. Two very intelligent and well-respected bloggers wrote pieces which together do a good job of summarizing the way people feel at two ends of the spectrum. The first, "AskObama Is a Meaningless Marketing Stunt," was written by Umair Haque of Harvard Business School. Haque takes a fairly hard line. In his own words,
It's marketing over substance, hype over reality, spin over reform — as usual... And I'd say using the very, very awesome Twitter to solicit "questions" from citizens in this environment is a little bit like earnestly running a focus group about the best color for your next pair of $2000 loafers — while your boardroom's on fire.
The second piece was written by public relations guru Shel Holtz and was titled, "Twitter townhall cynicism is misplaced," and while it is written generally, it is to some degree a rejoinder to Haque's piece above. Holtz posits that while more certainly can be done, the use of Twitter for this event was a step in the right direction and should not be shunned. He says,
In the many face-to-face town hall meetings held to date, only the lucky few who scored tickets and passed screenings were able to get into the auditorium where they had a shot at having a question answered. Turning to YouTube and Twitter simply opens the door to anybody who wants [to] query his or her leader. Shrugging that off as a stunt is like making fun of someone who uses a computer for word processing, which improves the process of typing. No, it’s not taking full advantage of the networked capability of a computer, but it’s a damned sight better than a typewriter for producing documents... Anything that expands access is fine by me.
Was the Twitter Townhall different than a typical townhall event?
Some have argued that the questions asked from "average people" through Twitter are "better" than the ones normally asked by the White House press corps, particularly because they were broader in topic matter; I think the value of the questions in a given press event is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly everyone asks the questions they ask for a reason. But I can say, as a person sitting in the room during the Twitter Townhall, I thought that while the topics were well thought out (and obvious - jobs, housing, the military...), the questions were extremely tame. Meaning: nothing surprising, nothing tricky, nothing offbeat, nothing counterculture.
One could certainly make the point that many such surprising/tricky/offbeat/counterculture citizen-generated Twitter questions would have been inappropriate for the President or the venue. But if that's the case, and a priori such questions would not be used, what's the point of using Twitter to generate a diverse set of crowdsourced questions in the first place? (And why is a sense of humor seemingly banned from such proceedings?)
When you think about how a mainstream, mass media organization goes about hosting a townhall or debate event, it's no different from what happened for the Twitter Townhall event. They read what elites are writing in major publications. They read conversations online, on blogs and on Twitter and other places to get a sense of the average audience member and the larger conversation. They get private feedback from their friends and colleagues. Then, they edit and curate questions into a group of 5 or 10 or 20 or however many they need. They are diverse. They are sure not to offend. And they are relatively straightforward with the occasional mild "gotcha" question.
Twitter behaved like a mainstream media organization
Twitter branded the townhall event with their name. Their staff and business partners helped curate the questions. Their chairman hosted the event with the President. Jack Dorsey and Twitter may have as well been David Gregory and NBC hosting the townhall last week, and I'm not sure the "Twitter Townhall" would have been fundamentally different if the latter were the case.
That isn't to say that the event was worthless, or that Twitter isn't an incredibly valuable tool, or that Dorsey didn't do a good job (in fact, I thought Dorsey did an outstanding job as host), or that the President did anything wrong. It is to say, however, that it was surprising how very much like a mainstream, mass media organization Twitter behaved, and how much the audience and the blogosphere have simply accepted it as fact that what many people think of as a consumer-oriented, startup social network from San Francisco was producing a political / government press event. I think that is noteworthy in itself. Not good, not bad, just interesting.
One commenter on Haque's blog post, Bonifer, made a similar point succinctly: "The intention may have been good. It doesn't matter... It was the same old mass media game played with new media tools... To use a primitive analogy, it doesn't matter how many new fire-making tools we invent if we keep putting fire to the same old uses." I think this is somewhat accurate, though my interpretation is not quite as negative.
Haque, at the top of his post, called this "digital dumbification." I call it digital distraction, meaning, many people in the audience were distracted by the shiny digital tool involved (i.e., Twitter) to notice how very average the content of Twitter Townhall was. Holtz makes a nice argument that rather than Twitter doing something that was previously impossible in this case, it rather improved an existing process. I suppose that's true, but along the spectrum measuring how "improved" the Twitter Townhall was versus other "regular" townhalls, I think the progress was definitely real but relatively small because of the way the technology was applied in this particular case. That's hard to quantify, but it would also be hard to find someone who thought the content of the Twitter Townhall was a radical departure from the norm, no matter how much they enjoyed watching it.
The media business is becoming social (again)
People used to refer to Twitter as a startup company, a tech company, and a social media company. And they still do. And they still are. But I believe that's thinking a little too small at this point. As I tweeted during the event, "I think this #askobama Twitter Townhall hosted by @jack is the strongest evidence that Twitter is a media company." And by media company, I mean a professional news and content organization. Tech pundits used to debate whether Twitter was a mainstream social media platform or not. At this point, I think it's fair to say that Twitter has gone mainstream... but as mainstream media infrastructure. That's why every news anchor and TV drama begs you to engage them on Twitter, and it's why so many government agencies consider it the most important new media tool for public affairs - it's become necessary.
Last week on Bloomberg TV, morning co-host Dominic Chu commented that among the "media moguls" at the annual Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, ID, it was becoming harder and harder to tell the media people from the tech people. News Corp. owned the social network MySpace until recently. Microsoft will allow you to stream live TV through your Xbox beginning this upcoming holiday season. AOL, the original dial-up Internet company, now owns Engadget, TechCrunch, Huffington Post, and other news organizations.
There's an interesting trend of "tech company media creep" in the political and government arena, in which tech company products are being used as engagement platforms on a playing field traditionally controlled by mainstream media. Whether it's President Obama early on embracing Google Moderator and YouTube to engage the public, Rep. John Boehner leveraging Microsoft's Townhall platform for America Speaking Out, the recent presidential townhall and livestream from Facebook headquarters, or the latest Twitter Townhall, more and more mainstream media is being left out of the game in some fundamental ways. As it turns out, tech companies can do a lot of things media companies can do, and a lot of things traditional media companies cannot do (or don't realize they should do).
A recent commentary in The Economist called "Coming full circle" describes the history of news as an inherently social medium, from Romans chatting in public marketplaces to people passing copies of printed materials to each other in the 1500s. The article infers from a number of different lines of reasoning that we are in the middle of a 'fall' in mass communications, that journalism and media as we know it today is a 200-year anomaly, and that due certainly in part to online social networks a new era of social news is upon us whether people completely realize it or not. And that this is okay.
Frankly, I'm a little surprised to not see more jealousy from the mainstream media over the Twitter Townhall. The reason Jack Dorsey was hosting the event and not (say) David Gregory is because, simply, Jack owns the platform that powered the event. Any organization could have in principle executed the event; only one organization is associated with owning the social platform that made it possible. In the future, will traditionally technology companies continue to dominate the "social" part of media, or will traditional media companies begin to build engaging new social tech platforms for themselves? As Twitter has shown mainstream media, a tech company can generate original content, provide you with communications infrastructure, and directly compete with you all at once.
This post originally appeared at Publicyte.com