Twitter is, traditionally, where politicians can go for quick, spontaneous interactions with constituents, because it's truly a democratic forum -- tweets by the people, for the people, arrive in real time. But those expecting such a spontaneous exchange with President Obama when he announced a seemingly impromptu Twitter Q&A on Thursday night were sorely disappointed to find the questions cherry-picked earlier by White House staff.
At 4:28 p.m., Obama sent out a rare personal tweet from the White House Twitter account, soliciting questions from followers for what many thought was a sudden interest in public debate over his To Do list for Congress: "Let's try this: After I speak here in Iowa about clean-energy jobs, I'll answer a few questions on #CongressToDoList. Ask w/ #WHChat."
Tweets came rolling in, and after Obama again tweeted to invite questions following his speech, the frequency of tweets exploded, peaking at 4,165 mentions of the #WHChat hashtag at 6:15 p.m., according to Twitter analytics tool Topsy.
He went on to answer seven questions from average Twitter users, none with more than 400 followers, one with only seven, on issues ranging from energy to student-loan interest rates to mortgage reform. Obama answered each one personally, as evidenced by a picture of Obama tweeting away on a laptop tweeted by White House photographer Pete Souza. The answers he provided mainly echoed talking points he has already expressed on his "To Do" list, the five tasks he's asked Congress to accomplish to improve the economy.
But the tweets he answered were all time-stamped much earlier than his initial personal tweet inviting questions, one as early as five hours before Obama's tweet. Was the Twittersphere suddenly clairvoyant, predicting Obama's seemingly impromptu Q&A before its denizens knew it would happen?
Nope. Those tweeters were responding to an earlier call for questions from the official White House Twitter account, around noon on Thursday, that largely went under the radar until Obama shifted the question session into high gear with his personal tweet. The questions were, then, not spontaneous, but rather likely cherry-picked by staff hours before, giving Obama ample time to prepare answers.
Obama's personal tweet was advantageous on two levels, however: It gave the town hall an off-the-cuff feel, popular among everyday citizens because it seems to indicate a level of intimacy with a highly-guarded, meticulously planned politician. And, perhaps more significant, it allowed Obama to avoid the GOP hashtag hijacking that has become par for the course whenever Obama has previously announced a social-media campaign ahead of time. Though Republicans did latch on to the hashtag eventually, the White House's craftiness prevented the hashtag hijack from becoming too much of a social media centerpiece, as has happened with such efforts before.
It's a clear signal that while the candidate who revolutionized the use of social media for campaigning won't abandon the medium, he's also become considerably warier of its potential abuses.