Dissecting Results from Obama’s Town Hall

Without a doubt, today has been an incredibly exciting day for TwitSprout. What began with our Obama Dashboard announcement this morning has evolved into a whirlwind of activity, tweets, and blog posts. We are, of course, incredibly grateful to all of our partners, users, and fans for their help and encouragement; it’s been a thrill.

With that said, our work here is not yet done. In our last entry, we made some predictions, and now it’s time to see how we (and the White House) performed!

The Good

What did everyone get right? We feel we matched the major categories of things Obama focused on — tax cuts, the debt ceiling, and job creation — but that wasn’t very difficult to do. More specifically, we nailed the third tweet Obama answered:

Tech and knowledge industries are thriving, yet jobs discussion always centers on manufacturing. Why not be realistic about jobs?

This one was right on our dashboard, and we had singled it out because @Kim, a very high-Klout user, was one of the many who put their weight behind it. The White House chose the earliest version of the tweet, by @dmscott (with slightly lower Klout), but the logic is clear — this tweet was chosen for the high-level support it received.

Another one we expected, but for a completely different reason, was Obama’s 8th:

Mr. President, In several states we have seen people lose their collective bargaining rights. Do you have a plan to rectify this?

According to our calculations, at the time of the Town Hall, this tweet had been mentioned, retweeted, or RT’ed over 182 times — making it the 4th-most active tweet in the Jobs category, and 14th overall. This is high enough to be on our list of likely predictions, although not high enough to earn one of the few spots on the Dashboard itself. Even though the tweeter, @pmglynn, is not very influential (with only around 100 followers), the question itself generated a lot of discussion and interest. It was an excellent candidate, and both TwitSprout and Obama appear to think so.

The Bad

We definitely stand by all the predictions we made — there was solid reasoning behind each of them, and we’re confident they would have made excellent questions; however, there are a couple of predictions we didn’t make that, in hindsight, probably would have made sense.

The most obvious omission is @johnboehner's provocative tweet:

After embarking on a record spending binge that’s left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?

At the time of the Town Hall, this question had been propagated 79 times: a nontrivial amount, but only enough to place it in 10th place in the Jobs category, and much lower overall. There are two things that should have tipped us off about it, however:

  • Even though @johnboehner’s Klout is only 69, his influence on President Obama is considerably higher. His position as Speaker of the House undoubtedly played a role in Mass Relevance’s decision. Of course, there’s no automated tools that would detect this. We simply should have thought of it.
  • Even though the full form of the tweet had only 79 propagations, the snappier version “Where are the jobs?" by itself had 341 of them — enough to place it in 2nd place in the Jobs category, and 6th place overall, which would certainly have gotten our attention — except that this tweet didn’t make sense to us, since we didn’t see it in context with Boehner’s tweet (they were far apart in our rankings). Of course, we had algorithms to detect subtle rewordings between tweets, but these two didn’t trigger them.

The Ugly

We might as well come out and address the elephant in the room. It was obvious to anyone who had followed our predictions or paid even casual attention to the #AskObama stream, that there was one particular topic getting a particularly large share of the buzz: the legalization of marijuana. Although the topic of the Town Hall was ostensibly about the economy, it was becoming clear that people did think of this as an economic issue. By our measurements, the two most popular tweets of the entire stream, were:

Would you consider legalizing marijuana to increase revenue and save tax dollars by freeing up crowded prisons, court rooms?

Pres. Obama: Why can’t we discuss legalizing cannabis to create jobs and save millions annually on enforcement?

These two alone, including their various reincarnations, accounted together for more impressions than every question about taxation put together! An event that emphasizes popular opinion as a tool for accountability could surely not fail to address these questions in the depth they deserve; but, of course, the topic was notable only for its absence. The President discussed the war on drugs merely tangentially, for less than half a minute, leaving absolutely nobody satisfied.

One explanation for this glaring omission is a simple misinterpretation of the data, whether on our part or Twitter’s. With such a strong signal coming through the noise of #AskObama tweets, however, we were fairly confident in our evaluation of this topic’s relevance — but maybe the curators were looking at things differently. When White House correspondent Mike Allen announced the official breakdown of tweets, we wanted to compare his with ours:

TwitSprout's BreakdownTwitSprout's Breakdown

Notice that the relative percentages of Twiitter’s four categories are nearly the same as ours, except that it accounts for more of the total — as if a chunk of the “Other” category was removed or reapportioned among the four categories. Here’s what happens when we separate out the tweets we believe to be related to the legalization of marijuana in our set from the catch-all “Other”:

TwitSprout's BreakdownTwitSprout's Breakdown

This evidence is purely circumstantial, but it does suggest that the things our algorithms classified as marijuana legalization were either dropped from the grand total, or re-assigned to some other category based on secondary characteristics. Either possibility would result in the near-perfect correspondence between our “Top-4” and “Other” tweet percentages.

To be fair, we didn’t expect the President to truly treat every question equally. For one thing, the encouraged topics centered around job creation and the economy. For another, a large part of the “Other” chunk of the pie consisted of rude or snarky comments, clearly trying very hard to impress with their own wit. Nobody expects Obama to field those. But when an overwhelming part of the people who are supposed to be setting the tone of the discussion are being conspicuously passed over — it makes you wonder why we don’t just drop the pretense and have another press conference instead.

Despite the disappointment some people may have felt about this dodge, we still felt it was a great event. The thrill of working in “real time” under the public eye is addictive, and we’ll definitely be looking for more opportunities to practice our analytics chops out in the open. Thanks again for all the help, and keep an eye out for more great TwitSprout features coming soon to our regular users.

Adrian at TwitSprout

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  • posted 07 July, 2011

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