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Imagine you could directly ask President Obama a question and receive a personal answer in real time. What would you ask? Thanks to Google+ Hangouts, you could get this opportunity.

The only catch is you would need to be one of the lucky six chosen out of thousands of questions submitted. This is the scenario that occurred when Obama held a virtual Hangout after the State of the Union address last week. Among those chosen were an author, engineer, blogger, activist and YouTube channel creators. Most questions fell into the usual concerns about jobs, the economy and education. But more importantly, this gave the President a direct sense of what the American public is thinking about.

“Fireside Hangouts” led by the Obama administration resemble “Fireside Chats,” which were a series of radio addresses given by Franklin D. Roosevelt between 1933 and 1944. The difference between the two is the medium in which the messages take place. In FDR’s case, citizens could only engage in a one-way dialogue and had to rely on journalists to ask the hard questions. Obama transformed this by directly interacting with the public in real time by allowing average citizens to ask him questions.

While this is not the first time Obama has taken questions through social media, the interactivity of Hangouts is revolutionizing how the public connects to the President and how his messages are received. Google+ Hangouts are creating a new type of public dialogue and reshaping the public sphere.

Traditionally, citizens relied on journalists to shape the public dialogue and frame messages. According to Habermas, the public debate conventionally involved political actors, civil society and journalists. Journalists would select items of news value and distill information to citizens. However, new media technologies are now allowing the public to bypass journalists and directly engage with political actors. This has led to the rise of citizen reporting and first-hand dialogue with public officials, as seen in Obama’s Fireside Hangouts. It has also allowed Obama to have more control of his message.

While social media platforms are giving citizens greater access to the President, journalists are becoming dissatisfied with the changes brought from this new public dialogue.  A recent article by Politico reporters Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen argues that the White House is giving the press less access as the government increases its use of new media. Times when Reporters could ask tough questions are declining with Obama’s escalating use of technology. This is concerning because the press has traditionally served as a watchdog on the government. If the Obama administration increases its direct engagement with citizens then the role of the press may also change.

However, Google+ head of community partnerships, Steve Grove, argues that the change in public dialogue is creating “a more honest and dynamic discussion.” This is due to the shattering of barriers that allow the public to become citizen journalists and participate in live conversations and events. “These mediums have democratized public dialogue and allowed anyone to have their say,” said Grove.

While journalists may disagree that Obama’s Hangouts produce transparency, they too can shape a new kind of journalism through Hangouts. Grove said that reporters are now using Hangouts to shape stories in real time through collaboration with other journalists and viewers.

The changing role of journalists sheds light on the increased engagement between public actors and citizens in the public sphere. As of now, a scholarly search on the effects of Fireside Hangouts on citizens and political participation generates little results because this is a relatively new phenomenon.  It will be interesting to see studies about how these Hangouts will effect voter decisions and public opinion.


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