The 2012 Barack Obama campaign joined Google+. When will he host his first @WhiteHouse hangout?

As 2011 comes to a close, the Internet and social media are playing an increasingly big role in Politics.  Google has been trying to attract politicians to Plus, with mixed success. That’s changed rapidly over the last month. Google’s published a guide to Google+ for politicians to help them on their way. With the addition of the president’s campaign this morning, I think it’s likely that today will be a tipping point for Google Plus adoption in the political space.

As Drew Ulanoff reported at the Next Web, the 2012 +Barack Obama campaign for president joined Google Plus today. The Page has been verified by Google: this is the real thing.

The president’s campaign will be able to do more than ask questions on Twitter or post a picture of Bo on Facebook with Plus, however: he’s be able to host a Hangout with and then broadcast it live through Google’s platform using improved features that rolled out this fall. In the future, that might include mobile hangouts with the president through Android devices.

Of course, that’s already true for all of the leading Republican contenders to be next president of the United States. All of campaigns of the candidates currently leading in the polls to be the Republican nominee for president are on Google+, including +Mitt Romney, +Herman Cain, +Newt Gingrich +Ron Paul. Romney participated in the first of a series of Hangouts with candidates from the GOP primary. Bachmann, Santorum, We can expect more of them this winter.

Politicians, by nature, are drawn to crowds — particularly registered voters from their home districts. For Plus to be worth the additional time of elected officials or their staff, they’ll need to get substantial returns on that investment. If the presidential campaigns are there, it will show what’s possible to others and draw politically engaged citizens in.

The prospects for that outcome are looking better recently: Google Plus traffic surged after the addition of brands and media companies this fall. If people see it as an attractive destination to interact with candidates and their campaigns, that’s likely to continue. To date, aside from notable exceptions like +Bernie Sanders, congressmen, mayors, governors and other elected officials have not yet joined in bulk. We’ll see if that changes after the Thanksgiving holiday.

When is the first presidential Hangout?

Chris Taylor (“Barack Obama joins Google+“) writes that “at least one prominent user was making active use of the site Wednesday: President Barack Obama.” Ulanoff at The Next Web? “it’s definitely the President himself.”

Well, not so much. It’s campaign staffers, not the leader of the free world, just as it is on @BarackObama on Twitter or the Obama 2012 Facebook page. The only tweet the president has composed and sent went out from the @WhiteHouse account (more on that later).

Taylor makes it clear that he knows that Obama is not using the account himself — “it isn’t being run by the President himself, but by his reelection campaign” — but the imprecision here doesn’t help matters for readers. That’s doubly so when Google executive +Vic Gundotra writes “Welcome Mr. President! Follow the President at +Barack Obama” in introducing the new page.

As is often the case, Nick Judd has some of the smartest analysis of the intersection of campaigns and politics, over at techPresident. In his post on team Obama joining Google+, he gets to the heart of the issue: whether candidates or sitting elected officials use a given social platform to its fullest capacity to engage constituents and built community, as opposed to yet another (virtual) podium to deliver messages and speeches. So far, the Obama campaign isn’t going there.

Campaigns are using these channels primarily as another outlet for information to reach a different audience — if any candidate has used a brand page to actually go back and forth with constituents, beyond hangouts by Gingrich and Romney, it hasn’t appeared on the techPresident radar. But that isn’t stopping the hopey-changey crowd from asking: One of the most prevalent comments on Obama 2012’s first post, from around 9:17 a.m., is a request for a Google Hangout with the commander-in-chief.

There’s nothing wrong with reaching new audiences, of course — particularly for those trying to get elected — but how political accounts use social media will factor into whether they’re successful reaching and engaging them, much less influencing them. Each platform has developed its own culture and styles, from the reblogs and retweets of Tumblr and Twitter to the “Ask Me Anything” forum — or AMAs – on Reddit. (For an interesting thought experiment, imagine if the president did an AMA like former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.)

As Carl Franzen points out at TPM IdeaLab, as Google+ gets political it’s encouraging politicians to create pages, not profiles. Future analysis of the social network’s political prospects might dwell upon that initial choice. Facebook, by way of contrast, has been transitioning many fans of pages to subscribers of profiles. Senator Sanders has a profile, although the use of the third person makes it clear that its’ staffers that are updating his page.

Danny Sullivan makes another important point at SearchEngineLand: while Barack Obama joins Google, White House is still not there. (It may be a while yet, depending upon how quickly the respective legal teams at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway can work out an agreement. They did it for YouTube eventually, so stay tuned.)

There’s a larger point to make about how, where and why our elected leaders choose to use social media. Radio and television dramatically changed how political leaders could communicate with citizens domestically and humanity globally during the 20th century, both for good and ill.  In the 21st century, that capacity has further expanded and will continue to do so, in ways both expected and unexpected. Politicians can speak to the electorate whenever and where ever they are, if they choose to subscribe emails or follow profiles. Citizens can, in return, speak back using new connection technologies and, of course, speak to one another. That conversation is ongoing, whether or not an elected leader chooses to participate in it.

When President Obama stepped to the podium in the first Twitter Town Hall, he did something unexpected: he asked a question. In return, he received a selection of answers that Jack Dorsey shared at the end of the event. For this remote participant, that moment was the most interesting aspect of event, singular as it was in many respects. The president asked a question, the public replied and he read the responses.

Given the demands on the president’s time, using Twitter like this all day isn’t likely to be scalable (he might consult with Newark Mayor @CoryBooker about his experience) but it’s not hard to see the potentially utility of asking a good question occasionally and collecting the answers with ThinkUpApp or something similar. The same is true for other elected leaders too, naturally.

Given that Plus enables comments and Hangouts, there are new possibilities for sharing presidential questions and answers there as well. If the president decides to “Hangout” at the White House* himself, he’d be tapping into a new form of the potential of the Internet to connect him with the people he was elected to serve. Given the president’s current job approval ratings, he could expect to encounter some discontent, but then that’s part of the role. As with any position of great responsibility, it has its pluses and minuses.

*Mike Kruger, director of new media at the Department of Commerce, pointed out a key stumbling block for the use of Hangouts by federal agencies and the White House: they’re “easier for campaign to do. Hangouts fail 508 compliance/accessibility.”

Curry and Co-Creation: A new US-Indian Partnership on Open Government

What will a new US-India partnership on open government mean to the two countries? Shared resources, shared technologies, and maybe, a culture that trends towards a more open, accountable and participatory government.

No one who has watched the progress of open government in the United States would posit that it’s been an easy path. In India, the challenges are, if anything, even greater, given the immensity of the issues posed to the country’s population by poverty or literacy, a legacy of bureaucratic intransigence or outright corruption. There’s a reality behind Indian website that speaks volumes about that culture.

That said, there are many reasons to be hopeful about this open government partnership, particularly around the growth of mobile technology as a means of reporting issues.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India walk down the Cross Hall
Image Source: White House Flickr Account

As Nancy Scola points out at techPresident, learning Indian-style open government offers many opportunities to adopt the rapidly evolving platforms for mobile citizen participation from India.

For a sense of how such platforms can grow, look no further than Ushahidi, which was originally created to be an election reporting platform in Kenya.

Now we’ve got a joint statement from Obama and Singh, striking in how it frames the United States as a junior partner in the open government partnership. It noticeably credits the progress India has made in using technology to empower democratic engagement while striking a decidely more aspirational tone when it comes to the Obama adminstration’s work in the open government field: “This will build on India’s impressive achievements in this area in recent years and the commitments [link] that the President made to advance an open government agenda at the United Nations General Assembly.”

That statement is embedded below:

Us-India Open Government Partnership

In his remarks to a joint session of the Indian parliament in New Delhi, President Obama elaborated further on his vision for an Indian-US partnership on open government:

In the United States, my administration has worked to make government more open and transparent and accountable to people. Here in India, you’re harnessing technologies to do the same, as I saw yesterday at an expo in Mumbai. Your landmark Right to Information Act is empowering citizens with the ability to get the services to which they’re entitled — (applause) — and to hold officials accountable. Voters can get information about candidates by text message. And you’re delivering education and health care services to rural communities, as I saw yesterday when I joined an e-panchayat with villagers in Rajasthan.

Now, in a new collaboration on open government, our two countries are going to share our experience, identify what works, and develop the next generation of tools to empower citizens. And in another example of how American and Indian partnership can address global challenges, we’re going to share these innovations with civil society groups and countries around the world. We’re going to show that democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for the common man —- and woman.

The question, as ever, is what this will practically mean when the glow induced by lofty rhetoric fades and the hard work of open government moves forward. The US-Indian open government dialog might mean more open source collaboration. As Information Week reported, a US-India partnership on open government practically includes $1 million dollars “toward public efforts to share best practices in working toward improved services and democratic accountability.” In the United States, that might not go very far. In the Indian subcontinent, it might be enough to seed funding for a number of mobile platforms to grow.

As Steve Ressler pointed out at Govloop, the mobile aspect of open government mainstream deserves special note. Why? Tom Friedman’s recent New York Times op-ed on the growth of mobile technology in India highlighted the same thing that Scola did: the potential to leapfrog a generation in wireless tech and see the creation of many new businesses:

India today is this unusual combination of a country with millions of people making $2 and $3 a day, but with a growing economy, an increasing amount of cheap connectivity and a rising number of skilled technologists looking to make their fortune by inventing low-cost solutions to every problem you can imagine. In the next decade, I predict, we will see some really disruptive business models coming out of here — to a neighborhood near you. If you thought the rate of change was fast thanks to the garage innovators of Silicon Valley, wait until the garages of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore get fully up to speed. I sure hope we’re ready.

If just a few of those mobile entrepreneurs focus on creating platforms for open government, the civic surplus of hundreds of millions of citizens in India and abroad could be harnessed to co-create government on a scale never witnessed before in history. There are reasons to be be skeptical, naturally, but the opportunity is there.