Over the years, I've participated in a number of online chats and live blogs, but today was the first time I interviewed a person that way while they were in the same room with me. Following President Obama's Mideast policy speech today, I had a chance to sit down with Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser and author of the speech. I was joined by Mark Lynch, aka @abuaardvark, of FP.com's Mideast Channel.
Twitter stream during the interview.
Twitter stream during the interview. Screengrab/NPR
The idea behind the interview was pretty straightforward: collect questions from people on Twitter, select the ones we wanted to ask, then ask them. In some ways, doing this on Twitter seemed rather appropriate, given how both the media and the government had to play catch-up as events unfolded in Tunisia and Egypt, with Twitter serving as one of the few conduits of information available to them.
In practice, though, it felt like we were juggling and riding a unicycle simultaneously, all the while trying to interview a senior administration official. The interview took place around a small, semicircle conference table. Marc and I both had our laptops in front of us, as well as numerous bottles of water, while Rhodes sat next to us, without even a Blackberry on display. In many ways, this reflected the strangeness of what we were trying to do: conduct a Twitter interview with someone who wasn't actually on Twitter.
Meanwhile, there were cameras aimed at us the whole time so the interview could be streamed online. It struck me as strange it was going to be streamed at all; I mean, what could be more dull than two Twitter geeks with their heads buried in their laptops as the interview subject patiently waits for us to type? I was worried the cameras would be a distraction. Fortunately they were far away from us, so as soon as we started it was easy to ignore them. We even decided not to wear our suit coats for the interview. Twitter was the whole reason we were doing this, not video, so who cared if we weren't as dapper as our interview subject was?
We managed to find plenty of good questions before the speech, including many from people in North Africa and the Middle East. A Mauritanian human rights activist asked if the U.S. was applying a double standard when it came to Bahrain. A Libyan wanted to know when the US would recognize the opposition as the legitimate government of his country. An Egyptian woman asked about military trials of protesters — her own brother had been put on trial earlier today. And a woman from Beirut asked what the U.S. would do to Syria assuming the current sanctions don't work, while a Yemeni woman asked why the U.S. hadn't tried sanctions on her own country's president.
We also hoped to grab some questions during and after Obama's speech, but that became a real challenge. The hashtag we used for collecting questions, #MEspeech, became the defacto tag for the speech itself, and soon enough it was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter. Each time I tried to grab a potential question, it and a hundred other tweets would fly past me. Somehow, Marc managed to grab a few while we were doing the interview, catching the proverbial fly with lightning-fast chopsticks.
The interview quickly fell into a rhythm. We had planned to take turns asking questions and followups, topic by topic, while the other person would live-tweet the conversation. In practice, though, we multitasked. As I asked a question, I read it from my Twitter client just before hitting the send button; I'd then capture as much of Rhodes' response as possible, while Marc did the same. On several occasions it seemed Rhodes wasn't being direct with his answers, so we riffed and did followups whenever it seemed appropriate. And all the while, the #MEspeech hashtag kept flying faster than a stock ticker.
To our surprise, we managed to hit upon every topic we had planned on including. Along with some broader questions about the administration's standing in the Arab world, we were able to take enough time to discuss Palestine, Israel, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We probably could have squeezed in a couple more if our fingers hadn't started to cramp. Who knew that you needed to do stretching exercises before an interview?
Andy Carvin is NPR's senior strategist for social media. He's been covering the Arab Spring since December. The Two-Way posted a summary of what was said during Andy's interview with Ben Rhodes, earlier today.