Taking to Twitter on Thursday, the president emphasized his “all of the above” strategy on energy resources, pointing to bio fuels, wind, and solar energy. He answered just seven questions in a brief session under the hashtag #WHChat, but entirely different conversation took place outside of the controlled discussion.
Twitterers posted an array of crazy, rude, and angry questions directed at the chief executive. The string of conservative tweets illustrates — yet again — that the public sphere is multiple and fragmented. And, as it turns out, angry and ineffective.
But is it effective in any way? Does Twitter chatter matter?
One person, @cdubontw, asked this question of the president, “Do you now or have you ever considered yourself patriotic?”
A newcomer to Twitter, hailing from Colorado Springs, CO, @cdubontw uses the tagline “rebel conservative pirate monk!”
Other writers sent questions the president’s personal life, his diet, and his sexuality. Critical issues were raised — such as corporate personhood, drones, and national debt, but the posters were twittering at, not with, the President.
For Twitter to be an effective political tool, there needs to be engaged conversation.
Many were happy to report that the goal was not a conversation, but an attack
“If Obama thought that announcing chat at last min would throw cons a curve… sure his own were the dim bulbs!!!!” wrote D.L. Walker of Blaine, WA, on Twitter as @didirjune19.
Between Controlled Talk and Crazy Talk
On both sides of the event, it was questionable whether this Twitter chat mattered.
The president used hand-picked questions to make a few minor points. The primary realization that comes from reading his responses is that he is not a stickler for rules.
If he had more to say than could be captured in 140-characters, he made several posts in a row.
His online foray was not widely reported in the media.
Both Twitchy.com and Yahoo! News reported that the chat was hijacked by conservatives as usual. The 1600 Report on CNN.com covered the story, but only to cast the chat as a “mini Town Hall.”
On the other hand, conservatives posting criticism and sarcasm knew their efforts would not go far.
Dudley Morales, online as @dudleymorales, said, “I know you won’t read any of this criticism but it makes me feel better anyway.”
‘Feel Better’ Speech
One purpose of free speech is self-actualization. Expressing one’s personal views with fellows does not have the same political value as a conversation that is likely to influence someone who thinks differently.
An analysis of a random sample of 100 tweets posted by the public on #WHChat reveals that the majority, approximately 54%, were nonsense, jokes or ads.
Only 10% of the public tweets even mentioned an issue in the campaign, while another 10% focused on the process or purpose of having the White House use Twitter for a chat session.
Few thought that Obama would read through their outbursts.
Continuing to tweet after the president had literally left the building, Julie Borowski, online as @JulieBorowski, responded to hearing the chat had concluded by writing, “Haha I don’t care if it’s over.”
Overall, Twitterers used #WHChat as a location for connecting with like-minded followers.
Yet, having a conversation with the like-minded is not going to shift values in the public sphere. It is not likely to result in political action by either government actors or members of civil society.
Rational, respectful discussions among people and groups who do not agree is a First Amendment value that, if exercised, is more likely to bring about social change. Using Twitter to that end would matter.
In the official chat, the president focused on energy alternatives and emphasized ways to help small businesses, for example, with tax credits and deregulation.
The few questions selected by the White House indicated that energy goals were the order of the day. He answered two questions on energy/oil dependency, and two questions on helping small business.
The other questions in the chat touched on themes intended to be relevant to ordinary people: mortgage rates, student loans. The president ended with an easy question about the importance of compromise.
Since he did not take on the scrolls of criticism, did his chat do any good? Was it effective? Compromise is not possible without engagement.
On the other side of the fence, did the conservative hijacking do any good, other than make a few hundred conservatives feel better?
Followers under each Twitterer’s star had a good time, watching as the sparks of their internal conversation flew by. Would it be exciting to have the president answer a question? Sure, but it was apparently just as awesome to be bad-mannered and blow off political steam with your friends and fellows.
Might as well be on Facebook.
Several posters thought it was a good idea to load #WHChat with nonsense, in order to teach the president a lesson. What lesson? The lesson that the president should not to use digital media? How will that lesson bring politics into the 21st century? Silence is not a First Amendment value.
Twitchy.com used a headline to argue that “Obama Still Hasn’t Learned, Trots Out #WHChat.”
Posting a link to the Twitchy.com item back on Twitter, @VelvetHammer commented that Obama was “afraid of Conservatives on twitter. hahahahaha.”
But apparently he was not afraid. The White House occupant wrote answers to selected questions and ignored the hashtag hacks.
Meanwhile, most of the public sphere ignored the splash.