Trying to fulfill his dedication to an "unprecedented" level of openness in government, President Obama today conducted a community-moderated townhall via a live Webcast, emphasizing it as an "experiment."
"I am thrilled all of you here in the White House, and everybody viewing this online, is participating in this experiment we're trying out," said the president. "When I was running I promised to open up the White House to the American people. This event being streamed live over the Internet marks an important step toward achieving that goal."
While past presidents, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have used the Internet to answer questions, this was the first time a president has done so in a live video format.
The questions came in over the past few days, through a new feature on WhiteHouse.gov called "Open for Questions." Using an online submission form, Web-goers were able to choose from a dropdown list of topics related to the economy: Education, Home Ownership, Health Care Reforms, Veterans, Small Business, Auto Industry, Retirement Security, Green Jobs and Energy, Financial Stability, Jobs, and Budget.
In addition to submitting questions, in text and optional 30-second video clips, users voted questions up or down, which were then ranked by their popularity.
Open for Questions was closed to submissions at 9:30 a.m. ET today -- registering a total of 104,116 questions and 3,607,383 votes from 92,918 people. Out of the 104,116 questions asked on the forum, during the hour-and-twenty-minute-long Townhall, five were answered by the president, who then turned to take questions from real, live people in the room.
While the site claimed that Obama would be answering some of the "most popular questions," that wasn't actually the case. The third question Obama took (viewable on YouTube) received a total of three votes. Another, a video of three bubbly high school sophomores concerned about higher education, received six.
The remaining three questions were related to universal healthcare (6,421 votes), restoring education (6,153 votes), and veterans' assistance (1,797).
Yet, while it wasn't on the moderator's convenient list, Obama didn't ignore the fact that the three most popular questions, receiving between 7,000 and 8,000 votes each, were an appeal to Obama to legalize drugs.
"We took votes about which questions were going to be asked. There was one question voted on that ranked fairly high -- whether legalizing marijuana would improve economy and job creation," said a smirking Obama. "I don't know what this says about the online audience, but I don't want people to think... This was fairly popular question, and the answer is 'no.' I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."
By using new technology to draw in questions from a large audience of Web users, and streaming the townhall on WhiteHouse.gov, Obama was able to effectively cut out the middle-media-man, as he often did throughout his campaign, and appeal straight to the citizens.
But it also keeps Obama in control: Whereas a site like "Ask the President," discussed in an Editor's Blog earlier this week, purports to bring questions to the president based on their actual popularity, this system puts more power in the hands of Obama's staff, which gets to choose them.
While a step in the right direction, this townhall was another example that the Internet maintains a supplemental role -- the spot for the post-press-conference townhall, where millions will participate and a lucky few will be selected by hired White House staffers.
But, at the very least, it fosters participation and discussion, a point Obama emphasized in his sign-off: "Thanks for participating. Thanks for paying attention. We need you guys to keep paying attention in the months and years to come."
— Nicole Ferraro, Site Editor, Internet Evolution