In another technological first for the Obama White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Thursday that he would call on Twitter for the first question in the White House briefing.
"Something new," Gibbs promised on Thursday morning, in a tweet broadcast to his 108,000 followers. "You take first crack. Use #1q in a q and I’ll answer 1 on vid before today’s briefing. What do you want to know?" Showing his fluency with the medium, Gibbs coined #1q as a "hashtag" to track incoming questions, which helps spread the conversation farther across Twitter.
Traditionally, the first question in the briefing goes to a reporter for a wire service, followed by TV reporters and big newspapers, who have coveted assigned seats in the front of the briefing room. The White House has dabbled in virtual town halls with the President, but the briefing room has been reserved for press and a few credentialed writers for major blogs, like TPM and the Huffington Post. (The latter site made news by using its question to quote from an Iranian activist during the country’s uprising.) Tapping Twitter is different, because it cracks the door open to non-credentialed, citizen questions. (See update below.)
Several transparency and open government groups have been advocating similar opportunities for citizen questions. For the midterms, 10Questions.com empowers citizens to ask and vote on questions for congressional candidates in 11 states, through a partnership with Personal Democracy Forum and a host of media partners. Here at The Nation, we led Ask The President, a coalition with Personal Democracy Forum and others to inject citizen questions into the White House press corps’ meetings with The President—which spurred thousands of votes and questions, but no committment from Obama to date.
For Gibbs, the foray into citizen questions was swiftly embraced on Twitter. Within an hour of his unexpected call on Thursday, the #1q thread was drawing pointed questions from fans and skeptics alike. And because Twitter is transparent by default, everyone can see the questions pile up and decide for themselves if Gibbs cherry-picks a softball.
Update: Macon Phillips, Director of New Media for the White House, explained on Thursday that Gibbs’ response would be posted in an online video, separate from his podium address in the official press briefing. Phillips also suggested that answering citizen questions would be a recurring feature, saying he would "aim for earlier moving [forward]" in how quickly the videos would be posted online. (Phillips provided the explanation by tweet, naturally, in a response to me, PDF’s Nancy Scola and Patrick Ruffini, a GOP web strategist.) Including responses to citizen questions from the podium, in the official briefing, would be more a more powerful way to engage citizens and break down some of the barriers between credentialed media and citizen media. Gibbs’ foray, however, is still a welcome step. And as Obama has been emphasizing recently, people campaign in leaps and bounds, but usually govern in baby steps.