Fast Company

The Banality of Obama's "Cutting-Edge" Web Event

President Obama has availed himself of almost every major medium in this month's PR blitz. 60 Minutes, Jay Leno, ESPN, CNN, primetime press conference, The New York Times. Now he's taken to the Web, keeping Americans apprised of his plans to stem the nation's leeward slide into insolvency. But as unusual as a presidential news conference might be on the Web, it achieved almost immediate banality.

In case you missed it, President Obama held a live-cast Q&A session at the White House this morning which was broadcast via WhiteHouse.gov. The White House claims it was a first for an American president, though both President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton also made limited use of the Web to communicate with citizens during their time in office.

A handful of questions were chosen from a pool of over 100,000 submitted via WhiteHouse.gov and YouTube; questions were screened first by voters in a Digg-style upvote/downvote system and then by advisers. One of the vice-president's economic advisors read them aloud to President Obama, who answered them off-the-cuff before a backdrop reading "The White House is Open for Questions."

Voters' questions were by turns angry, gracious, and off-color, but as lacking in insight as many of the mainstream media's queries last Tuesday night. "Why am I paying for the poor fiscal decisions of my neighbor...?" asked Cobber99 from California. A Georgia woman thanked the President for his "hard work" and blessed him. Another voter proposed the legalization and taxation of marijuana as a viable mechanism for job creation and revenue. "I don't think that was a good strategy," said the president. And the President merely sounded the same measure of cautious optimism he's been expressing for the last two months. Hearing it over the Web was no more informative than hearing it via television or newspapers.

After the webcast ended at around 1:15pm, it bore asking what, if any, value was gleaned by putting such an exercise online. As a candidate, Obama exhibited incredible savvy with his use of the Internet to summon grassroots enthusiasm. But today's Web conference, which was held largely in the same format as the in-person town hall meetings he's held this winter across the country, demonstrated that not every facet of governing need be brought into the 21st century.

The small live audience at the White House this morning probably gleaned much more from the President's performance than at-home Web users, who can't see the man's body language, can't gauge his intonations, and can't feel the response of the rest of the crowd via the 300x300 pixel box on their monitors. Town-hall meetings are called that because they are contingent on community. The extent to which they succeed is the extent to which they make a group of people feel as if their endemic concerns are being answered. The Internet, while a community by some measures, doesn't fit that bill, leaving the whole event feeling unfocused and pat.

In preparation for the event this morning, Obama did finally update his Twitter feed for the first time since his inauguration. Let that be a sign that Obama has more of his campaign Web magic up his sleeves.

 

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3 Comments

  • Chris Dannen

    @ Terrence: I don't "support" or "condemn" the president's use of the Web for this town hall meeting (@Snapper, that is Obama's moniker, not mine). I'm more interested in whether or not it's useful for him, or for us. It's nice to have constituents asking questions, as you said, but they're not allowed follow-ups, and they're probably a little too star-struck to ask the kinds of incisive questions that newspaper reporters do. We need both reporters and citizens to be asking questions--I'm just not sure they gain anything by doing it via Web.

  • Terrence Hill

    I praise President Obama for taking the risk of exposing himself to direct questioning from the American public. The questions were unscripted and he even addressed the ridiculous issue of legalizing marijuana use, which was a popular question.

    I hope that he continues this new tradition of bypassing the middleman (reporters) and speaking directly to the American public, his constituants. I hope other government leaders follow his example to use technology to reach their stakeholders.

    I'm kind of surprised that Fast Company doesn't support this initiative. I've always thought of Fast Company as being supportive of innovative use of technology.

  • Snapper Cridge

    I think your theory that this was to be some sort of "town hall" is flawed. The vast majority of negativity surrounding his campaign came from the internet. I think this was an attempt to test the ground for a some of the "web magic" you mentioned. I think he was trying to connect to a different kind of voter.