President Barack Obama took part in a virtual town hall meeting late yesterday afternoon, with five hand-picked participants face-to-face with the president in a Google+ Hangout. Obama also answered questions submitted by YouTube users and, though most of the questions were prescreened and voted on prior to the hangout, answered a few personal questions on camera. That was where it got a bit weird, but hey... leave people to their own devices and these things happen.
The question that wasn’t asked though, despite its being the top voted on YouTube and second overall prior to the event, has marijuana legalization advocates upset over Google’s cherry-picking. Retired LAPD officer Stephen Downing’s question about legalization, which called U.S. drug policies “a failure and a complete waste of criminal justice,” was weeded out. Google controlled the questions, says Reuters partner TheWrap, though it may be more than a little naive to think the White House didn’t have some veto power to exercise.
The Oval Office Hangout was an opportunity for citizens to ask questions left lingering after the State of the Union address and interact with the president in a very real way. Hangout participants were able to raise their hands and ask questions if they disagreed with Obama or had a follow up question or comment.
It was also a great opportunity for Google to show off their social media wares, including their YouTube Politics channel, launched back in October. Users took to YouTube to submit and vote on questions before the event. Though it may have been a first for the White House, celeb hangouts have been a mainstay in Google’s Plus marketing strategy; previous hangouts they’ve promoted heavily featured the Black Eyed Peas, Felicia Day, and even the Dalai Lama with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Many are calling this virtual town hall a “first;” a turning point in the use of technology in politics. However, Facebook hosted one with the president last April, live streamed from their headquarters. Users submitted questions in advance through Facebook, who selected those the president would address. Google’s format allowed for more interaction and back and forth discussion between Obama and participants.
Which begs the question: is that really a good and necessary thing? While some are (quite justly) complaining about questions being filtered out, you have to wonder how much open and sharing is too much. You could practically hear the collective eye rolling of the millions of people watching when stay-at-home mom Jennifer, who had taken Obama to task over her husband’s unemployment throughout the event, asked him to do a jig on camera during her personal question time.
Yes, that happened. You have 30 seconds to ask the president of the United States of America a personal question; something that could give you and everyone watching greater insight into just what makes this man, the leader of the free world, tick. Jennifer: “I was wondering if you could stand up and give us a jig real quick?” I missed this week’s episode of The Real Kardashian Teen Mom Housewives of the Trailer Park, ENTERTAIN ME! When he politely refused, she asked him to sing a song.
Head, meet desk.
One particularly interesting question that made it into the fray was from Mike Mozart, of Jeepers Media. Mozart created the popular anti-SOPA videothat took big media to task over their participation in the distribution of piracy software over the last decade. His question asking why the U.S. is trying to extradite a British student for copyright infringement was rebuffed by the Prez, who said he’s not doing anything, since his office doesn’t prosecute anyone. Maybe there was a bit of dancing around, after all.
In a final display of weird and creepy that makes one wonder whether Hangouts with people we should take seriously are really such a great idea, Google chose to stream in an Obama impersonator to ask about the effects of comedy sketches on election results. Apparently a YouTube star, the man (whose only resemblance to Obama was the set backdrop) sounded suspiciously more like Bill Clinton, as he played to the camera and laid on the extra cheese with an “important call” on his red desk phone.
If you’re interested in the politics, there is a ton of coverage on the Q & A on jobs, the economy, student loans, drone strikes, the NDAA, and other matters covered during the event. Check out articles from the International Business Times or CBS News, or Anthony DeRosa’s blog post for Reuters.
Like anything, you have to take the not-so-awesome with the good. What did you think of Obama’s hangout (embedded below, if you missed it)? Do you think virtual town halls are a good use of technology and the President’s time? Let us know in the comments!