April 19, 2018

Epiphanies from the White House Twitter Town Hall: the Power in the Palm of Our Hand

Last week I complained that librarians and libraries were invisible at the White House Twitter Town Hall that seemed at the moment like a great but lost moment for library advocates. One librarian, however, was front and center at the event. Here, in a guest post, Alexia Hudson describes how she got invited to participate in the Tweet Up and the lessons she left with. —Rebecca Miller, Executive Editor, Features, LJ

post author Alexia HudsonThere aren’t many life experiences more exciting, surreal, and transformative than being an invited guest into the White House. Even more incredible than receiving the invitation, however, is the one small thing that led me to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on July 6.

Just one week earlier, I was sitting on my sofa watching the news while scrolling through Twitter on my Blackberry. I was feeling aggravated with the current socio-political environment and how librarians appear to be absent in major discussions related to the digital divide, access to health care pricing data, and educational reform. Then, the White House’s official Twitter account sent a message to its followers (approximately 2.5 million) to consider applying to participate in the first Presidential Twitter Town Hall “Tweet Up” at the White House.  [A tweet up is a part live, part real-time online session and/or gathering where Twitter participants meet and discuss timely topics or just to gather together around a special interest.]

The catch was that you had to convey in 140 characters or less why you should attend this historic event.

I said “what the heck?” to myself and fired off this message:

Librarians R rarely invited in2 the political discourse altho we R champions of equitable access 2 information I wld be honored 2 participate

I didn’t expect to be selected. I primarily use Twitter as an educational outreach tool with the undergraduate students. I attempt to re-direct their energy on Twitter toward peer-to-peer learning, but many of them prefer to engage in a bawdy 21st century version of “the dozens” instead. I have what would be considered a small to moderate size network of Twitter “followers” with whom I share information from sources such as the Mayo Clinic, NPR news, and CNN, to name a few. In short, I don’t consider myself a “major player” in the social networking realm by any means.

When I received the e-confirmation emblazed with the White House Seal (and the directive to arrive at the White House in less than 24 hours), my jaw literally dropped. Needless to say, there was a whirlwind of activity that I miraculously managed with a great deal of calm and ease. I notified my family, my employer, purchased my train tickets from nearby Philadelphia, and was “briefed” in the protocols of the day by Kori Schulman of the White House Office of Digital Strategy—all within hours of receiving the confirmation.

Schulman shared that I would be able to tweet on a Blackberry. However, laptops and photography would not be permitted. I was also given permission to share of news of my visit on Twitter and other social media outlets.

A librarian “tweets” with the President
Once in DC, I hopped a taxi to the White House and proceeded through a series of security checks. I was composed until I entered the East Room, when it actually “hit” me—I am in the White House and will be in the same room as the President Barack Obama. I was literally taken aback. A kind member of the Color Guard gave me a few minutes to digest the experience before gently ushering me along to my reserved seat in an audience of about 150.  There, I chatted with other members of the “tweet up” group as we waited for President Obama, who ran into the room a bit late and got started.

White House Twitter Town Hall

Once the “tweet up” began, I watched the President sent his first “tweet” and respond to questions from a live Twitter-based audience on topics ranging from jobs, the economy, student loan assistance, defense spending, and immigration reform. I “tweeted” my reactions and commentary for the duration of event using two identifiers on Twitter—#WHTweetup and @townhall.

Afterward, Obama left the room immediately, and the Tweet Up Town Hall participants were ushered into the Eisenhower Executive Briefing Room for a post meeting with Twitter Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, Aneesh Chopra (White House chief technology officer), Macon Philips (White House director of new media), and members of the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy. There snacked on chocolate chip cookies and M&Ms from boxes emblazoned with the Presidential Seal as we debriefed the experience. I learned that I was one of approximately 30 participants (culled from potentially hundreds of thousands applicants) and the only librarian in the group. Most of the White House Tweet Up participants have full time job responsibilities that entail social/digital media.

A librarian takes a place at the table
Chopra then led a rapid fire and robust dialog on current and proposed policy issues including green energy initiatives, open access to health care pricing data, and plans to further expand broadband access.

I asked Dorsey and Chopra about digital inclusion initiatives and plans to engage diverse populations in strategic civic engagement. The subject piqued Dorsey’s interest, and we are planning a follow up meeting in the near future to discuss possible next steps for Twitter on this topic.

As I was led out of the White House (roughly three blocks from where I initially entered), I inhaled and started having a series of epiphanies regarding the role of librarians in this ever changing digital discourse.

Clearly we are an integral part of the social fabric of our communities, but what is being “lost in translation” while we fight to sustain library funding models? What are the most valuable ready-made opportunities available to us that we’re not fully executing?

I hopped into a taxi to begin my journey home, picked up my Blackberry, and started framing out the main actions I think we can take right away.

#1 Be influential rather than popular on social media sites
Many of us are focused on gathering large networks of “friends” and “followers” and consider them a barometer of our value and importance. But are we able to trigger action from that network if necessary?

It was evident in our post White House Tweet Up discussions that the participants were not selected simply because we are skilled in Twitter-prose. We all have active peer to peer information networks that we creatively leverage to positively influence others. The instantaneous measure of impact on Twitter is conducted through the number of “re-tweets” or shared tweets, forwarded messages, and if information shared by an individual on Twitter is mentioned in the media. We all easily fit those criteria. However, it was also mentioned that quality of one’s network matters more than the size.

Being influential on Twitter (or any other social media site) means having the ability to shifts others to action.  So, rather than merely counting how many users we have on these sites, we must examine how what we do influences others into action. We also must find ways to best influence the influencers by consistently participating in the digital discourse in social media.

#2 Transform social media monitoring into business intelligence
By many accounts we are in “the golden age of social media.” Therefore, we must face the hard reality that it is our social media interactions (not our web pages) through which a significant portion of the population gets introduced to us and expects ongoing, active engagement with us.

This provides us an incredible opportunity to leverage the data from these patrons and transform this data into true business intelligence. By measuring social media attributes such as site traffic numbers, reactions to specific products and programming, comments on patrons’ experiences, and support for advocacy initiatives, the metadata becomes actionable and further supplements our standard success measures of gate counts, computer usage, and circulation numbers.

#3 Own the digital literacy discourse
Digital literacy has become a “hot button” topic within the past several years.  Yet we appear to internally evangelize its importance rather than influencing the current external dialog. I eagerly anticipate the work of the American Library  Association’s  Office of Information Technology’s new Digital Literacy Task Force— comprised of some of the most preeminent professionals in the field. The task force appears to be taking a holistic approach to critically examining emerging trends and where we can play a more active role in lobbying for legislation to support digital literacy initiatives.

Meanwhile, let’s champion digital literacy as the cornerstone of the international digital inclusion movement and highlight the unique talents and skills we bring to the exchange. We must further embed ourselves in legislative, educational, and technological conversations about digital literacy that are happening outside of our field.

We should also take the lead on developing new culturally inclusive digital literacy pedagogies that go beyond device-centric knowledge. By segmenting our patron groups (based on the details extracted from our social media analytics) and creating multi-platform digital learning objects that take various learning styles into consideration, we become architects rather than consumers. Some inspiration can be found by searching #digitalliteracy in Twitter.

These activities will position us as the thought leaders of the digital literacy movement and make us indispensable to those who hold our financial fates in their hands.

The relevance of engagement
Prior to my White House visit, I spent a great deal of time thinking about the relevance of libraries as we fight off attacks on every front. Like many of us, I began to believe that our relevance was in jeopardy because the “stuff” that we place a great deal of importance on (i.e. the latest tech tools, collection materials, etc.) may not be able to sustain budgetary cuts.

Then it struck me that I landed in the White House by using Twitter on a Blackberry. And as incredible as that may seem, there’s a lesson here for all of us. We hold the ability to influence the discourse about the value of libraries right in the palm of our hands—and with just a few characters.

Alexia Hudson (@alexiahudson) is reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Abington College. She was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker (2008). In 2009, she facilitated an ACRL National Conference Roundtable Discussion on “Social Technology Lessons Learned from the Obama 08 Presidential Campaign.” Her article, “Measuring the impact of cultural diversity on desired mobile reference services,” has been selected for inclusion in the ALA/RUSA RSS Reference Research Review for 2010

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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