2.21.2013

Tweeting With a Broken Wing: Adventures in Social Media at the White House


I have written in various places about my love-hate relationship with social media. I love that I am connected to people, places, and things, a just the touch of button. That not only are these relationships local but global as well. What I hate is that many of these "relationships" aren't actually what a traditional relationship would be thought of. That exchanges are trans-actional at best, a giving and receiving of information. And while I might fool myself into believing that I have importance to those that I follow or who follow me, the truth is that our interests are only momentarily overlapping with one another.Being aware of this means that I try to be more mindful of my role or place in the messaging of any message.

Can I just say that at times like this I long for those "good old days" when having a phone meant getting a phone call and people would send thank you notes on fancy stationary and seal it with a kiss.

But that time has perhaps passed. If you want to be the first name on the dance card at any ball, you had better be uber-connected in multiple ways to all the people hosting the ball, not just the person who you wish to waltz with. So when I saw on twitter that the White House was accepting applications to live tweet President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) address, I two-stepped my way through a link to the application and signed my name on that dance card. I say this often enough that it might as well be my new mantra: the answer will always be no unless you ask. And just because I've been to the White House before (twice) that wasn't a guarantee that I'd get there this time. After all who knows how many people were dancing their way to that particular ball?

Now, I certainly felt that I had an advantage over other applicants as I was going to be in DC for the Shot@Life Champion Summit. The stipulations on the application were that we would have to provide our own transportation and accommodations to the event, so even if accepted, we were basically "on our own." In truth, if I hadn't already been scheduled to be in DC I wouldn't have applied. The application came out on a Thursday and applicants would be notified by Friday, so one would really have to scramble to find inexpensive airfare to get to DC by Tuesday. That, to me, seemed like a great deal of extra effort for a four hour social media event. But because I was going to be there, I took the leap and applied, tweeted that I had done so, emailed someone I knew who works in the White House to let them know I was, hopefully, on my way. And I waited.

Now, I wasn't idle while I waited. I was busy preparing for the trip to DC so I had to write my packing list, pack, unpack, repack, get a haircut, make plans for children and cats (still not sure who missed me more while I was away), schedule meetings and meet ups, and do the laundry.

And checked my email every ten minutes, or so, to see if I'd been accepted.

Attending the State of the Union from the Eisenhower Building
on the White House grounds
Spoiler Alert: I was. It's not like you hadn't already guessed that seeing as I'm writing a post about it, but trust me, there were moments when I thought I wouldn't be. After all, I only recently broke the 1000+ followers mark on twitter (and that's only because I started following others who were tweeting about going to the White House as well and they decided to follow me back) and at any given time there might only be, on average, one hundred people who read this blog. So I though I think of myself as connected and influential (with a business card that reads "change agent") it doesn't mean that I actually am "all that and a bag of chips." And when I saw the blogs and biographies for some of the other attendees to the event, I definitely did a "who me?" double take and made sure that I read the email slowly and carefully. 

But yes, I was in. 

Because it isn't just about the people who follow you on social media. It's who follows them. And who followers them, and so on. It's about sharing information and connections and opportunities. It is about messaging out to everyone that their voices would have impact if they wished to speak up. It isn't just about me, it's about we. 

I was fortunate to have this incredible moment. To be able to walk through the gates of the White House complex, to walk into the press room, to sit in the front row, to turn on the tech to tweet, to know that we were "trending" with our #SOTU and #WHSocial hashtags. To be there with fellow Shot@Life Champion Tonia Sanders. To meet people I'd been following and having "conversations" with. I felt honored to be there and to be able to bring everyone I know with me. That's the power of social media. 

With Zak Malamed (Founding organizer at Student Voice)
and Kelsey Donohue (Department of Education Intern)
And I listened, as did the other 100 or so audience members, to the President as he spoke in the State of the Union about addressing the budget, creating a more sustainable livable wage, early childhood education, STEM, energy, gun control, to name a few. And I tweeted...or tried to. My wing was broken. The tech failed. Too many on the same server? My own flawed tech products? Who knows, but tweets were going to the draft folder only be set free to fly at least forty minutes after the words had been spoken. My fully charged lap top battery was drained to empty within an hour. And my tech wasn't the only tech to fall short. It appears in our quest to trend, many of us were unable to take flight. So in my own way I tried to keep up with the program. but ended up relying on old fashioned pen and paper instead. 

And like any event, I had questions:
  • How will we pay for early childhood education programs or turn our schools into "modern places of learning" when sequestration is going to take 4.1 BILLION from the budget for programs that support children and family services? 
  • How will we raise the minimum wage to support our families when so many remain unemployed? 
  • How will we have a conversation about these issues when no one in DC seems to be talking about these issues? 
Roberto Rodriquez,
Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy

I had other questions too and was trying to tweet questions being tweeted to me. I'm fortunate to work with RESULTS, as well as many education advocates, so I actually have some answers that I could have given (if I'd been selected). And I didn't expect "real" answers from the panel that stayed after the SOTU, because it was late and many of the answers are most likely a "work in progress" behind office doors in the White House. But they stayed, and engaged with some of us (yes, including me) after the event. Posing for photos and taking business cards. Many of the attendees planned "after the tweet up a meet up" gatherings and there were several tweets to one another about missed chances to meet (even though we were all in the same room). 

I don't know what the next few months will shake out to be on the political and economic spectrum. I know that we cannot keep ignoring the plight of so many citizens by turning our backs to one another and drawing lines in the sand. I know that simple statements in a speech involve complex infrastructures and collaborative solution seeking from all of us. I know that there are remarkable caring and capable citizens who were willing to sacrifice personal time and expense to get to the White House to be part of an event that will frame the structure of an administration for the next four years. I know Champions of Change, Champions who advocate for global vaccinations, Champions of children and families (in connection to education) who would be more than happy to lend their knowledge and expertise to the administration to help find solutions to our most pressing problems. 

And I know that if all we did was come together for one night to trend a hash tag on twitter then there is no way we can ever mend those broken wings. So I hope that the White House reaches out to those of us who were in the audience to ask for not just our ideas, but the ideas of those who we connect with via the social media that they encouraged us to utilize and use. To transcend the trans-actional nature of social media, and build a society. Because we should:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; 
indeed it's the only thing that ever has" 
Margaret Mead

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