Friday, March 27, 2009

Town Crier

Yesterday President Obama held a live "Town Hall" style meeting in which the nation's Chief Executive answered questions submitted by supposedly typical Americans on the Internet. 103,512 people submitted 76,031 questions and cast 4,713,083 votes on which issues should be highlighted. The event was streamed live on the web, where over sixty-four thousand people watched it, and also broadcast on television. Although the event opened with a traditional introduction and presidential speech, attention then shifted to interaction with the content on two large flat-screen computer monitors, which included both text and webcam queries.

In response to a question about outsourcing jobs, which came from the disembodied and distorted head of one webcam citizen, Obama referenced the importance of ubiquitous computing, which he described as represented by "all the gizmos that you guys are carrying . . . all the phones, the Blackberries, the this and the that, plugging in all kinds of stuff in your house." He argued that a future "smart grid" to monitor and optimize energy consumption would be analogous to the construction of the Continental Railroad in its scope, although it would also function at the level of domestic economies that are visible on "smart meters" in the home. Around minute sixty-six, Obama also described a conversation from "yesterday" with "Bill Gates" about educational uses for technology in which he they discussed how good teachers could be videorecorded while interacting with their students and how those digital files could be used in mentoring other teachers "like a coach might be talking to his players" with play-by-play footage.

In this rare case, coverage of the town hall in the usually media illiterate Los Angeles Times was actually better than that of its New York counterpart, particularly when it came to providing Internet journalism with historical context and a critical lens. In "Obama connects from on high, online," the Los Angeles Times compared the event to an "infomercial" and pointed out that this kind of event actually had a history that went back to Carter fielding a hundred phone calls or Clinton answering sixteen questions online. Most significantly perhaps, this article also noted that the Open for Questions site at used Google Moderator to tally votes about which questions Obama should answer. Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Googlization of Everything, might argue that this is yet another example of what he calls "The Googlization of Government," even if is now using platforms other than YouTube in response to complaints from privacy advocates and public sphere critics about the company's more questionable policies.

In contrast, the New York Times reported in "Obama Makes History in Live Internet Video Chat" the more obvious fact that groups dedicated to legalizing marijuana nudged pot-related questions to the top of the queue. Although the White House was careful to repeat during the webcast that questions online were not "pre-screened" and were ranked based on up and down Digg or Reddit style voting, around minute 33 Obama did "interrupt" the proceedings to acknowledge that such questions were popular and that one that "ranked fairly high" was about "whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation." To this, he got a laugh with following punchline answer: "I don’t know what this says about the online audience." He continued to say, "The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy," although the Times actually misquotes his line.

Note also that around minute forty-four, Barack Obama almost finishes naming a well-known fast food chain before realizing that their brand name might be sullied by being associated with low-wage labor and subversion of young people's goals for higher education.

Update: BagNewsNotes provided some analysis of the visual rhetoric of the coverage of this event.

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