Obama's Facebook town hall a sign of times to come

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are expected to play big role in 2012 elections

President Barack Obama's town hall event live on Facebook Wednesday thrust social networking into the political milieu just as the run-up to the 2012 elections begins.

Obama held a nearly hourlong town hall with audience members at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.

Trading in his usual gray T-shirt for a shirt and tie, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg moderated the event, posing questions posted online and allowing members of the live audience to ask the president questions.

"Thank you so much, Facebook, for hosting, first of all," Obama said, kicking off the event. "My name is Barack Obama, and I'm the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie."

For the next hour, Obama took questions on topics like the federal budget, healthcare and the country's housing market.

More than 1,700 questions were posted on the White House's Facebook page, and more came from the WhiteHouse.gov website.

This isn't the president's first brush with Facebook or social media in general.

When Zuckerberg was introducing Obama at the beginning of the event, he called the president "one of the most popular people on Facebook, with 19 million 'likes.' "

This may have been Obama's first Facebook town hall, but it wasn't the president's first online town hall. In 2009, just days after the State of the Union address, Obama took questions from an audience in the White House and from online participants who had posed questions on the WhiteHouse.gov website.

That 2009 event attracted nearly 10,000 users, who submitted 104,111 questions and cast 3,606,658 votes for queries they wanted answered.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama showed other politicians what it means to harness the power of the Web. The then-senator went beyond the somewhat static Web pages of most past campaigns and tapped the power of Web 2.0 tools, including Facebook, YouTube, blogs and discussion boards, to create a conversation with potential voters.

And on Inauguration Day, a major overhaul of the WhiteHouse.gov site was launched, just as the president was being sworn in.

At noon that day, the president's official website launched with a new design that focused not just on the new administration, but on new media.

In the past few years, the Republican party has made its own inroads in terms of online efforts.

Just before last fall's midterm elections, Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate had more than 1.43 million fans on Facebook, compared with just under 300,000 for Democrats, according to HeadCount.org. On Twitter, Republican senatorial candidates collectively counted 520,000 followers, far more than the 90,000 followers of Democratic candidates.

As Republicans and Democrats work to improve their social networking chops before the 2012 presidential election, social networks are positioned to play a critical role.

"Social networking will almost certainly play a huge role in the 2012 elections. But it's a double-edged sword," cautioned Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group.

Candidates may be thrilled with the power of social networking, but they also need to remain wary of it, Olds said.

"It can be used to push out a candidate's message inexpensively and directly to potential voters and supporters," he explained. "It can also help them mobilize their troops and quickly spread news and information. But if the wrong message goes out, like a gaff, social networking will spread that far and wide too."

He added that people frequently make big, messy mistakes online, embarrassing the person they're trying to help or releasing the wrong information.

"Candidates also need to make sure their tweets and Facebook postings are being vetted by someone who knows what they're doing," said Olds, adding that online town halls can be "hugely persuasive."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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