If you blinked you may have missed it, but President Obama held a small, impromptu Twitter town hall yesterday in Iowa to answer questions and help craft a to-do list for Congress. The event is part of an ongoing White House initiative headed up by its digital strategy team to connect with voters and concerned citizens—and hopefully blur the lines between online and offline activism.
The president is no stranger to this format—he did his first town hall with Twitter's Jack Dorsey last July and has tried to stay one step ahead of most politicians in the digital game, participating in Google hangouts and even joining Spotify. Yet, while Obama decided to (quite literally) roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty responding to tweets in real time, it begs the question, just how effective is this type of engagement?
— The White House (@whitehouse) May 24, 2012
While one-to-one engagement between any citizen and sitting president creates an invaluable connection with the executive and a concerned potential voter, Twitter remains a peculiar format for policy engagement. The questions posed to President Obama throughout the town hall were complex in nature, meriting equally complex responses, not exactly the perfect format for the 140 character burst.
President Obama did as well as he could: "Facts are that a modest increase in taxes for wealthiest doesn't hurt economy; 90s boom, 2000s slowed. Not like we haven't tested," but the engagement rate for the event appears modest in terms of retweet engagement (typically a sign of successful message outreach).
The event averaged just 107 retweets, as reported by 140elect.com, a firm tracking political trends on Twitter. To be fair, the localized Twitter meet-up was not highly publicized; but its viral impact could have been a lot stronger, argued 140elect co-founder Zach Green, who blames poor tweet messaging.
On his blog, Green argued that context surrounding a tweet is the most important factor of engagement and that a string of contiguous policy tweets might get lost in the scrum of one's crowded Twitter feed. "Each tweet must stand alone," Green wrote on his blog. "Twitter is about placing ideas into discrete packages."