White House turns to Twitter to discuss President Obama’s Middle East speech

The role of mobile phones, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in the revolutions that have swept the Middle East in 2011’s historic “Arab Spring” has been the subject of much debate for months. While connection technologies helped to accelerate and amplify the news coming out of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and the rest of the region, it’s the incredible bravery of the young people who have stood up for their freedom in the streets that made change happen.

Tomorrow, President Obama will deliver a speech that many experts expect to reshape the Middle East policy debate. The speech will be live-streamed from the State Department and available to anyone online  at WhiteHouse.gov/live. In conjunction with the speech, the foremost curator of online media about the Arab Spring, Andy Carvin (@acarvin), will join with Foreign Policy’s Mark Lynch (@abuaardvark) in hosting a Twitter chat on the Middle East that will include an interview White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes after the president concludes his remarks.

Earlier today, White House new media director Macon Phillips (@macon44) explained how the White House will continue the conversation on Twitter over at WhiteHouse.gov:

Immediately afterwards, the live-stream will switch to a follow-up Twitter chat with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, where anyone will be able to pose questions and reactions via Twitter.

NPR’s Andy Carvin (@acarvin) and Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark), two experts who bring both a deep understanding of foreign policy and extensive online networks, will facilitate a world-wide conversation that will include participants from the Middle East and North Africa.  As Andy explains:

Rather than come up with all the questions ourselves, we’d like to invite you to help us craft the questions. If you’re on Twitter and want to submit a question, please post a tweet with your question and include the hashtag #MEspeech in the tweet. You can pose your question before or during the speech. We won’t be able to get to every question, of course, so we encourage everyone to follow the #MEspeech hashtag and join the broader conversation about the speech on Twitter.

Folks at the White House (@whitehouse) will be keeping an eye on the #MESpeech hashtag as well, so be sure to use that to share thoughts before, during and after the speech.

Keep an eye on that hashtag tomorrow: this will get interesting.

UPDATE: I’ve embedded the archive from today’s Twitter chat at the end of the post along with video from the White House. Quick thoughts on the outcome of today’s “Twitter chat.”

1) I thought Carvin and Lynch did a phenomenal job, and that this was well worth their considerable effort. Carvin described the experience of a Twitter interview as akin to “juggling and riding a unicycle simultaneously, all the while trying to interview a senior administration official.” The two men asked tough questions from a global audience, starting with fundamental issues of trust and policy towards Bahrain, shared the questions and answers as they went on Twitter, often including the @ handle of the person who asked them. The result was a fascinating window into one future of new media, geopolitics and journalism. The considerable trust that they were given to find and ask the best questions was, in my eyes, paid back with interest. Well done.

2) It was also hard not to see a marked contrast between the recent “Facebook townhall” where founder Mark Zuckerberg asked President Obama all of the questions and Andy Carvin bringing questions culled from a real time global conversation to Ben Rhodes.

3) On a week when the executive editor of the New York Times offered considerable skepticism about Twitter’s value, this event serves as a quiet, powerful reminder of the platform’s global reach in the hands of those willing to fully engage the public there.

4) Poynter has an excellent background post regarding why NPR’s Andy Carvin is moderating the White House Middle East speech Twitter chat. NPR’s managing editor for digital news explained:

“Andy has cultivated a unique audience and following around the world and is the right person to carry on a conversation and channel a wide range of questions from around the world. He’s been doing it for months.”

If the interview were being conducted another way, Stencel said, perhaps a program host or a beat reporter would’ve done it.

Carvin “has the talent in this format that our hosts have in commanding the air. Andy is in essence the Neal Conan [host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”] of social media. He understands the format and he can conduct the interview in a way that takes a combination of smarts and skills that’s rare in media.”

That’s about right. In May 2011, there is no one using Twitter in this way more effectively than Andy Carvin. He has been more actively and deeply engaged in finding, validating and distributing the digital documentary evidence emerging from the Middle East on social networks and video sharing sites over the past six months than anyone else on the planet. He’s been storytelling using what Zenyep Tufecki aptly called “Twitter’s oral history” in a way that brings the voices and vision of millions of people crying out for freedom to the rest of the world. Today, he brought their questions into the State Department and White House. Pairing him with a foreign policy expert in Lynch brought significant weight and contextual experience to interviewing Rhodes. Well done.

For more, Nancy Scola wrote up Carvin and Lynch’s ‘Twitter interview’ with Rhodes over at techPresident. As always, she’s worth reading on it.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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