LIVE COVERAGE: Barack Obama's Facebook Town Hall

Facebook’s plan for ensuring more questions from members get answered: two more panels are scheduled for this afternoon, one about women and one about startups; these conversations follow President Barack Obama’s Town Hall. Please hit “refresh” regularly to keep up with our updates that continue to post below.

Please share with us in the comments section at the bottom of this very long post your reactions to the coverage and how it all reflects on the social network. Do you think the livestream — with Obama only getting to answer eight questions, half of them coming from employees of the company — has really given everyone an even shot at getting answers to the things we’ve been curious about? Has this been more of a marketing exercise for Facebook than a real political event? How does this compare with watching politicians on television?

A couple hundred people seated in a room very prominently branded with Facebook’s colors and logos applaud very loudly as President Barack Obama enters the room at 1:58 p.m. Originally scheduled to begin at 1:45 pm Pacific Standard Time, the event is already running late.

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg entered the room at about 1:53 p.m. to begin introducing the event. She says Obama has 19 million likes on the site. “Welcome home, Mr. President.” She’s introducing California Lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California State Assemblywoman Nora Campos, Palo Alto Mayor Sidney Espinoza, and many other local Democratic politicians.

“Even though it’s Facebook, no poking the President,” she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Then she introduced Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg at 1:56 p.m. and he appears unusually dressed up in a tie and jacket, with blue jeans and sneakers. “I’m kind of nervous. We have the President of the United States here,” he says.

Obama jokes that he’s the one who got Zuckerberg to wear a tie and jacket, twice. Apparently the president convinced the CEO to remove his jacket once before and again today. “What Facebook allows us to do is make sure this is not a one-way conversation,” the President says. “This format and this company is an ideal means for us to carry on this conversation… about the future direction of our country.”

Zuckerberg’s first question for the President concerns the U.S. debt, and Obama does a nice job explaining for an audience he himself described as relatively young. The Clinton Administration ended with a surplus, but that reversed during Bush’s two terms in office, he’s saying.

He’s summed up the past decade’s economic history pretty nicely, and segued into the budget bottleneck that many pundits had been expecting the President to address. He’s saying the Republicans won’t agree to increasing taxes, and explaining why he believes the increase needs to happen. His answer was lengthy but very accessible.

The second question comes from a Facebook member who wants to know about the housing crisis, says Mark. Obama responds by calling that the biggest drain on the economy (didn’t he just say it was health care costs just five minutes ago?). Again, though, he’s explaining economic issues for a mass audience. “The days when it was easy to buy a house, without any money down, are over,” he says.

Question number three comes from a Facebook employee, who wisely asked about job creation. Obama does a nice job segueing from a direct answer to his campaigning for ways to reduce the deficit by 2015. The fourth question comes from students in Florida, involved in youth roundtables on the social network, who are wanting to know about immigration policy. His answer dances between the issue they asked about and the larger agenda of the federal budget, taxes and economic stimulation.

Zuckerberg is reading question number six at 2:40 p.m., and we’re going to see what our own readers — like you — are saying in the comments section below this post. We’d noticed by this point that the audio had cut out maybe three brief times during the livestream so far. We’re so accustomed to minor glitches like sound loss during online video watching that you’d never see in a television broadcast of a President.

We think it’s interesting how roughly half of the questions in this Town Hall come from Facebook employees rather than members of the site; that might be a coincidence, but it’s really hard not to see that as part of the company’s heavy branding of today’s event. And the social network’s communications staff could conceivably have helped script these queries before they’re read aloud. The whole livestream has only allowed time for eight questions, and we wonder whether the ones selected for today really represent the things that all 650 million of the site’s members have been curious about.

Facebook had turned on the cameras an hour and 15 minutes early, starting at 12:30 p.m. Pacific standard time, so we got surprise pre-event coverage for a while there. People who tuned in to the video feed starting at this time got a good glimpse of the room where the Town Hall is taking place, with a Presidential-sounding soundtrack that replayed about every five minutes or so. At first we saw just few Secret Service agents in suits, plus a mix of casually-attired Facebook employees and professionally-dressed guests of the company milling about.

Then at about 12:50 p.m., former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi just appeared on the camera wearing a bright red pantsuit — that will make sure we can spot her throughout the afternoon. She’s posting for pictures in front of the area where Obama will speak.

Around 1 p.m. Pacific, the coverage switched to two members of Facebook’s public relations team, who spoke for a few minutes about the coming event. Andrew Noyes, director of public policy communications, along with a very pregnant-looking Marketing Director Randi Zuckerberg — Mark’s sister — explained that two panel discussions coordinated by Facebook would follow the President. The first of these sessions will address women in technology and the second will involve the fostering of startups.

After another brief glimpse of the room where the Town Hall is happening, the cameras switched back to Noyes and Randi, who spoke with two members of Obama’s communications team. They said that this town hall had only two weeks of planning, and apparently that kind of timing is business as usual for the White House’s communications staff.

The communications team is emphasizing that today’s presentations all advance the theme of stimulating the economy through technology. This messaging has a more positive flavor than the anticipated talk about Obama trying to convince the public that tax increases will reduce the deficit. And Facebook’s staff in particular are taking on roles we’re usually accustomed to see from television broadcasters before a live presidential event. And the company’s name is ubiquitous in the coverage.

Jeremy Stoppelman, chief executive officer and cofounder of Yelp is talking to Randi and Noyes at around 1:25 pm Pacific. The latter alludes to Mark Zuckerberg’s recent participation in a Town Hall hosted by Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch at Brigham Young University, very strategically reminding viewers that Facebook’s CEO has experience that Yelp’s chief doesn’t. Randi’s question for Stoppelman flatters his site, asking for the site’s best restaurant recommendation the president might want to visit.

Now Randi and Noyes are talking about how other politicians have done livestreams on Facebook, including Texas Governor Rick Perry and that state’s U.S. Senator John Cornryn, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, and former U.S. President George Bush. They call all of these presentations a build-up to today’s Town Hall with the current President of the U.S.

People were mostly settling into their seats by 1:40 p.m. About a dozen Secret Service agents entered the room from behind a blue curtain at 1:48 p.m. and took seats in the audience. Around 1:50 p.m., several more people, possibly Facebook staff, emerged from behind a curtain on the other side of the room and also seated themselves.

Related Stories
Mediabistro Course

Facebook Marketing

Facebook MarketingStarting Janaury 13, work with the group marketing manager of social media at Microsoft/BingAds to build a fan base and grow your business on Facebook! In this course, Geoffrey Colon will teach you how to set up and enhance your company page, understand best practices and measuring your success, execute a monthly content strategy, and incorporate Facebook into your overall marketing efforts. Register now!