Web Conferencing With Barrack Obama

One of the cool things about our office building is the fantastic lineup of speakers and guests Saeed and crew like to bring through. There have been lots of big name tech execs, entrepreneurs, authors, investors and just generally interesting people. Not a week goes by without someone interesting either dropping by the office itself, or available at an event in the building. However, Saeed has outdone himself this month, getting Senator Barrack Obama to stop by the building on June 2 for a meet and greet. Unfortunately, the way politics works these days, in order to be included in the meet & greet, you need to shell out $1,000 as a campaign contribution. While understandable, it’s disappointing. I’m not a particularly political person. I tend to be turned off by almost all politicians. While I’m far, far, far from figuring out who I’d like to be the next President, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least interested in Obama’s campaign. At least so far, whether it’s true or not (or just a media creation), he comes off as being someone who actually is interested in solving big problems, rather than someone who’s just interested in power. I think it would be quite interesting to see him in person, but I’m not giving him $1,000 just to find out — even if Rick makes a very compelling argument that this is a once-in-a-lifetime politician.

Still, for those of us who don’t have quite so much money to toss around frivolously on every other politician who comes to town, Saeed and crew organized for Senator Obama to hold a webconference at the building yesterday — which was free. Oddly, though, you had to “apply” at the Entrepreneurs for Obama website. Just the fact that you had to “apply” was a bit of a turnoff, as it suggests the campaign is trying to keep out certain people (or, more likely, capture your personal info for later pleas). I made the cut though, and headed down to the cafeteria to see what it was all about. For a chance to interact with a leading politician, I was actually surprised at the relatively small turnout. They could have easily fit everyone in the auditorium, rather than the larger cafeteria. Not sure if others didn’t make the cut, or it just wasn’t advertised widely enough, but I was a bit surprised. There were maybe 60 people there and lots of empty seats.

Then… came the technical difficulties. For a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it was a bit embarrassing. They used Yahoo Messenger for the chat, and as we started, there was pure static rather than Senator Obama’s voice. That resulted in a few minutes of tech support while Obama sat waiting. Finally, they got it working, but the “video” wasn’t a video at all. I don’t know if there were bandwidth problems or what, but the “video” was changing at about 1 frame per minute (no joke). Basically, it was a still shot of the Senator holding earbuds to his ear that would shift every minute or so. The sound quality was awful and there was a noticeable lag. There really was no reason not to at least do the audio portion over the phone.

Obama gave a short intro that was about what you’d expect and then took questions. People seemed a bit shy to ask questions, but eventually came up with some challenging ones. That’s actually where Obama started to shine. While he initially started off his responses with the typical pat politician answers, with each question he started to dig deeper into his thoughts, and it showed that either he was really well briefed or was really thinking about these issues… Unfortunately, though, technical difficulties got in the way again. Grier’s brother David asked a long question about tax policy and government expenses and just as Obama said “that’s a really fantastic question,” the static came on again and we had to wait another 2 minutes to get the system working again. Obama joked, of course, that the technical difficulties had nothing to do with him trying to avoid the question. And, while he did give a good answer, the technical quality was really distracting. A total loss of communications happened a couple more times as well, and while the Senator was kind and gracious enough to stick around 15 minutes longer than he was supposed to, a lot of that time (both his and ours) was totally wasted.

After this, Obama’s “New Media Director,” Joe Rospers (who was there in person) gave a presentation that was somewhat forgettable. It was nice that he gave a little history of campaign websites, but it began to drag on after a bit and I gave up and headed back to work.

All in all, it was interesting. I’m still intrigued by Obama, though not enough to give him $1,000 just to be in the same room with him. I was impressed by his grasp of the issues being discussed, and the obvious depth he was willing to delve into in answering the questions. Other than a brief mention of how the patent system needed to be reformed, he didn’t touch on my pet topic of intellectual property reform. The guy organizing the event noted that the “Entrepreneurs for Obama” group had put together a position paper for the Senator on patent reform and I may try to get a copy of it — though I’m almost afraid of what it might say. As for the overall event, it would have been much better if the technical difficulties weren’t such a huge distraction, but give the campaign credit for at least being willing to try something like a web conference.

I snapped a few pictures from my seat, though, they’re hardly anything special.


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