How to Improve the Twitter Town Hall


History was made in the East Room of the White House this afternoon when President Obama held the first ever presidential Twitter town hall. For a little over an hour, Obama, sitting on unnecessarily high stools with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, took questions submitted to him over Twitter with an #AskObama hash tag and chosen by a group of economic experts assembled by Twitter. The great advantage that a “Twitter town hall” has over a traditional, in-person town hall is that literally anyone in the country has a chance — albeit an exceedingly slim one — to have Obama answer their question. Twitter users also had direct input in determining what would be asked; questions with the most replies and retweets were more likely to be selected for Obama. It’s interactive democracy on a scale that would have been impossible only a few years ago, and represents amazing leaps forward since the pre-Internet age. If you were an average citizen in 1960 and you wanted JFK to respond to your question, you had to be standing in the same room as him, preferably wearing lingerie.

Unfortunately, despite all that, the Twitter town hall this afternoon was just as boring, barely watchable, and lacking in new insight as most traditional town halls. It wasn’t Twitter’s fault, really. The problem was that the format, as innovative as it was, still allowed Obama to remain Obama. Despite receiving questions in bursts of 140 characters or less, he wasn’t inclined to stray from his usual habit of answering every question with an eight-minute response. (For what it’s worth, the Times calculated that his answers averaged 2,099 characters each.) Yes, complicated topics such as how to revive the economy deserve a thorough explanation. But too often “thorough explanation” means, in practice, “reciting an old press release out loud until everyone zones out.”

The beauty of Twitter, which wasn’t fully utilized today, is that it forces us to get to the damn point. It would be nice to hold Obama to the same restriction — not all the time, but in this one unique venue. The town hall should have taken place entirely on Twitter, with Obama responding not out loud, forever, but in a succinct tweet. We’d learn a lot more about the gist of his priorities and plans if they weren’t shrouded in endless talking points, evasive maneuvers, and other extraneous fluff. Question. Answer. Question. Answer. That would be a real innovation.