Interview With Macon Phillips, White House Director of New Media

If you’re following me on Twitter, you probably saw a few updates in the past few weeks asking for ideas for interview questions for Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media in the Obama White House.  He is from Huntsville, and had been convinced to come by UAH for a brief talk about what he does in the administration and how he got there.

To make a long story short, that talk had been organized through the library and I’d been asked to do a bit of research in order to come up with a list of questions and topics he could discuss.  Out of about a dozen topics I’d written down, he picked three that he discussed in length.  The library may have video of the event archived soon, but I thought I’d publish my notes on the talk for the time being if anyone is interested.

On Transparency: One of the questions I submitted brought up Politico.com’s “Politico 44” .  I implied that it was doing a really great job of conveying the type of transparency that President Obama has called for, and I asked how his office might do a similarly good job at this.  He brought up a number of features he termed as “experiments” from Change.gov, and how they might be using these concepts in the future.  One in particular was one called “Seat At The Table”.  This was a feature in which documents at transition meetings were submitted as PDF’s for public review.  Individuals and groups could comment on these and could submit their own material for review by the transition.  He also mentioned “Open For Questions”, an idea they’ve implemented in the White House just a few weeks ago.  I got the impression that these are things they will continue to try out, but the President having so much on his table ever since taken office has slowed that front down.  Understandably, the creation of new avenues of communication is not a priority as of now, but something they take seriously and will be experimenting with more in the future.

From this, I was able to take away that there seem to be many more holdovers from Change.gov and new ideas that they will be using in the somewhat near future.  The real challenge to this was brought up in a follow up question from an older gentleman in the audience who said he doesn’t use the web extensively as others.  He was concerned that his generation wouldn’t have the same access to this information, a problem Macon conceded was one they are grappling with.

On Twitter, YouTube, And Other Emerging Web Tools: I briefly asked Macon how the y had decided upon what tools to use, how they used them, and which they may be using in the future.  The answer to this was one of my favorites of the event.  He said that instead of looking at tools and deciding which were the biggest and the ones where they “needed to be”, they looked at these from a different perspective.  Instead, they already had a message they wanted to convey and simply looked at the tools available to them in the context of which would be the best medium for that message.

And also, they have to keep that same elderly gentleman in mind when they consider if these tools will really help them reach a mass audience.  He cited these concerns when dealing with what tools they will be using in the future, saying that many of these ideas were still “ongoing experiments”.  Macon did however briefly mentioned that they were looking into using Wiki’s in some fashion.

On a separate note, I finally discovered why the BarackObama Twitter account has been used very sparingly following election night.  Apparently, it and many other accounts and tools created throughout the campaign are property of the Democratic National Committee.  Due to that, they’ve been hesitant to use them in such public and non-partisan ways.

On The Death of Traditional Media: Macon mentioned that one of his favorite questions of mine was one mentioning the death of newspapers.  I cited the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle P-I, and asked how he would be dealing with online media as it grows into the rule instead of the exception.  One of the first thoughts that he brought up is that that traditional media is becoming a little hostile with his office.  He joked that some of the print media has come up to him and questioned if he really intended to eliminate them as a middle-man altogether by speaking directly to the public online.  He said this was not the case, and that he welcomed the efficiency and real time aspect of online media.  Generally I got the impression that there will be little change in how they deal with the media, however he seems intent on somewhat filling in any holes left by doing what the new corporate media fears and dealing directly with the public when possible.

I got to speak to him personally a little later after the official event, but we largely just talked shop and not anything really specifically concerned with the administration as a whole.  But what impressed me in my personal conversation with him is that this seemed to be a guy that disrupts any preconception you might have of a young guy shaping trends on the web.  He’s no Kevin Rose or Mark Zuckerberg, but his lack of the attitude that those two have is a big advantage he possesses for a number of reasons. I wish him luck, and I’m assured that the online direction of the White House is in very capable hands.

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