Tweeting My Way to the White House

by John A. Taylor, AmeriCorps Program Director, Michigan Primary Care Association

I love social media tools. As the AmeriCorps Program Director for MPCA, I find the tools incredibly useful for staying connected with AmeriCorps members and alums, enlarging my network, and staying informed. Although I regularly use a variety of social media sites including LinkedIn, Facebook, and the new Google+, my favorite tool is Twitter. Twitter provides instant information, easy access, quick connections, and powerful search in a simple interface.

I believe that Twitter and other social media are new tools of democracy. They allow citizens real-time opportunities to communicate their concerns, their challenges, and their commitments. Like any tool of democracy, they are messy at times, noisy, but when you filter out the noise, you’re able to clearly hear the voice of the people.

Still, it was a bit of a surprise recently when I received an email which said, “Congratulations! You’ve been selected to attend the White House Tweetup and be a member of the audience at the Twitter Town Hall.” Thirty-five other Twitter users across the country received a similar email, and we quickly descended on the White House on July 6, 2011, for the first White House Twitter Town Hall. We were invited to report on the Town Hall, through Twitter, as we sat in the East Room of the White House with the President of the United States.

Suddenly, I found myself gathered with this small group of White House Twitter followers, 105 other attendees, and a host of reporters waiting for President Obama, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, to begin the first White House Twitter Town Hall.  I had simply responded to a registration link in a tweet from the White House Twitter account www.twitter.com/whitehouse, and after giving my basic information, in 140 characters or less, described why I wanted to attend the first Twitter Town Hall.  I responded with something akin to (I didn’t record my exact words because, “Who knew?”): “I’ve dedicated my life to service, and I would like to understand how better to serve my community, my country, and my President.”

It was an unbelievable experience, not only for me, but for the many friends and family members who couldn’t comprehend that I was actually sitting in the White House.  Because things moved so quickly, I didn’t have time to inform many individuals about the event until I was already in Washington, and many of them had a hard time believing that I could “tweet my way to the White House.”

It was amazing to report, via Twitter, what the President was saying, and disconcerting to realize that as a group we were sitting less than ten feet away from the President of the United States as he discussed jobs and the economy.

Some individuals were disappointed in the Town Hall, few questions were answered of the over 70,000 that were submitted, and although healthcare remained a hot topic, it wasn’t addressed during the Town Hall.  In addition, the President breezed in, shook a few hands, answered questions, and then breezed right back out.  Others thought it was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the power of social media, and to see a President who is using this medium to connect better with the masses.

The highlight for me came afterward, as we spent some additional time in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, with Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder; Macon Phillips, White House New Media Director; and Aneesh Chopra, White House Chief Technology Officer, discussing the future implications of this new media, and sharing our concerns, beyond the narrow focus of jobs and the economy.  We discussed the implications of Twitter and other new technologies for primary care, energy, community organizing, education, data analysis, etc.

It became very clear why the White House is taking social media seriously.  Tools such as Twitter are more than a means to connect. They are information aggregators, collecting data that can quickly be analyzed and harnessed to get real-time information.

It was exciting to hear Dorsey and others explain how powerful this technology really is, and even more exciting to hear Chopra talk about the implications of this medium for healthcare, using tools built on the technology behind Twitter and other social media to provide real-time results to health providers, predictive analysis that leads to improved patient care, and accurate data-pools that help establish real-time, community-level models of care.

At this point, these tools may seem like toys, but now is the time to begin to develop familiarity with their methods, and consider how to harness their power, as new avenues are developed for their use.

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