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Did Twitter town hall bring something new to the table?

A day after President Obama's first Twitter town hall, pundits and techies were still debating whether there was something new under the silicon or if the president had merely transferred his oratorical skills to a new platform -- one, incidentally, where questioners couldn't ask followups or be caught by cameras grimacing during responses.

There was little debate that Obama's answers were, by and large, standard fare -- White House talking points about jobs, the economy and raising the federal debt limit mixed with a few personal anecdotes and pleasant quips.

The questions, though, were a more complicated proposition.

The New York Times' Caucus Blog called the event "remarkable for the ways in which new media companies are taking on roles that used to be the sole province of traditional news organizations" and wondered "are the questions posed by Twitter followers . . . better representation of what people want to hear from Mr. Obama than those asked by reporters at last week's news conference?"

Others, such as the Chicago Tribune wondered whether or not ordinary people actually got to have their say.

At the center of the debate was Twitter's complicated process for choosing Tweets, which began with an algorithm that rated their popularity based on re-Tweets and then passed on the questions to a team of "curators," who gave extra re-Tweets to favored questions.

The eight curators Twitter chose for the event included six professional journalists, one student journalist and two business and economics bloggers.

Indeed, the most popular question based on re-Tweets in advance of the event -- about legalizing marijuana -- didn't even make it into the event itself, except for a tangential reference to "end[ing] the war on drugs" in a response to a Tweet the president posted at the beginning of the event.

On the other hand, Tweets from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof -- hardly average citizens -- did make the cut.

A backward analysis of a keyword study the Boston Globe conducted in advance of the town hall suggests the Twitter format did produce something different from a standard news conference.

The Globe study looked at questions Tweeted with the #AskObama hash tag during the first few days after the town hall was announced and compared them with those asked by journalists during the president's past few news conferences.

Tweeters were more narrowly focused on issues such as job creation and the federal deficit, the study found, asking questions with keywords such as "jobs," "employment," "deficit" and "debt," while journalists spent more time on the political process, asking questions with keywords such as "Congress," "Capitol Hill," "meeting" and "negotiation."

A Nextgov review of the 18 questions asked during the live event did find those chosen to be more closely correlated with Tweeter keywords from the Globe study than journalists' keywords. Most notably, jobs-related keywords appeared in four of the questions, or 22 percent, while only one question -- from journalist Kristof incidentally -- included a politically partisan word, in this case "Republican."

Jobs was the most popular topic among Tweeters in the Globe study, represented in 12 percent of all Tweets, while 24 percent of reporters' questions referenced some partisan political issue.

Other top keywords culled from the full crop of pre-town hall #AskObama Tweets also received top billing in the final questions list including those related to the federal deficit and taxes.

Simple keyword searches, of course, are indelicate instruments for pinpointing the subject matter of a question.

One Tweeter using the handle RenegadeNerd, for instance, asked: "Mr. President, will you issue an executive order to raise the debt ceiling pursuant to Section 4 of the 14th Amendment?," a clear reference to partisan politics surrounding the debt ceiling debate, but one that didn't include any of the Globe's keywords for that category.

There's also the matter of how closely Twitter users reflect the public at large. Only 8 percent of adult American Internet users are on Twitter, according to a recent Pew study and only 2 percent of Americans used Twitter to engage in politics during 2010 midterm campaigns.

Regardless of whether the Twitter town hall brought something new to the debate, it appears to be here to stay.

White House Economic Adviser Brian Deese fielded some leftover questions from the town hall Thursday morning using the @whitehouse Twitter handle, and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Raj Shah fielded Twitter questions later the same day.

The questions Deese and Shah answered were informally selected by a moderator to be representative of the larger pool of questions, not through the kind of complex process the president's questions were subjected to, a White House Spokeswoman said.

The mere expectation that politicians will be available on Twitter may force a more open debate on the social media site. RenegadeNerd of debt ceiling fame -- real name Dexter Smith, according to his Twitter profile -- Tweeted under the #AskBoehner hash tag Thursday afternoon with no evident invitation from the House speaker.

"When will you and House Republicans cease peddling junk supply-side economics and deficit exploding tax cuts?" Smith asked.

"ZING Good question!!! Cannot wait to hear answer," another Tweeter responded. As of 5 p.m. Thursday, they were still waiting.

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// July 23