Hey - it's a brand spanking new White House website

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Just like former President George W. Bush handing the keys to the Oval Office to President Barack Obama today, the new-media teams exchanged virtual keys as well -- as in the keys to Whitehouse.gov.

Shortly after noon (EST), the brand new site appeared.

Team to team

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Full disclosure: As the director of the White House website during President George W. Bush's first term, I was part of a similar exchange between the two teams eight years ago.

Judging from the appearance of the new White House web site, it is apparent that the Obama new media team had some time to work on the new presentation. The 2000 Web team didn't have much of a head start (and for the first few months, it really showed).

Great looking site

How's the new site look?

A lot like the campaign sites. That's not a bad thing. President Obama ran an excellent e-campaign and his website was very user-friendly, as is this one.

The site is attractive, modern looking, easy to navigate, free of clutter, and makes an excellent use of photos.

Note to Macon Phillips (the new media director): Make good friends with the White House photographers and editors. You'll want as many photos as you can publish. It looks like you are off to a good start.

Changes

We've already seen some changes prior to the launch of the new site. President-elect Obama began recording his radio addresses in a video format. That's smart. It doesn't take much more effort to do a Web video than to do a sit-down audio address -- and you expand your audience significantly.

As for the current site, there's not a lot on it - yet. Right now it's the standard stuff: press releases, position papers on issues, photos, and some history.

This isn't surprising. In the first months of the Bush administration, the site was slim pickin's also. The New York Times's Elisabeth Bumiller did a story on the evolution of our site back in 2003.

She correctly noted, "Once it was a no-frills government site with little to offer the general public -- Jimmy Orr, the director of White House Internet operations, refers to the Bush site's early days as the 'stone age.' It was equally rudimentary when it began in the Clinton administration. But now it has woofers and tweeters, with what Democrats would call heavy-duty propaganda mixed in with pictures of Barney, the presidential terrier."

Bumiller was right. It just took awhile to get the site up to speed before adding a lot of features and really taking advantage of the technology.

And to be fair, the Clinton White House site was very advanced for the 1990s. Mark Kitchens was ahead of his time.

Bloggy

The fact that the Obama team has a prominent blog on the home page is great. Of course, the Obama team blogged (and had many bloggers) during the campaign. The blog on the Presidential Inaugural Committee's web site provided solid information as well.

These guys get it. It's not about formal language. It's about speaking like a person. Really connecting with visitors. We saw it during the campaign. It's no surprise they're doing it here.

Woe is me

As much as the Bush Web team lobbied for one, we could never get a blog up on the old White House site.

The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin quoted me back in 2004 stating that we wanted to get bloggier. But that was crazy talk back then. Permission to post a blog was denied. So instead we worked around the system and created White House Interactive. This was just basically a way to interact with the public by asking them to send in questions and we would answer them online.

In '03, we launched "Ask the White House," which allowed people to chat with members of the White House, cabinet secretaries, and other members of the administration.

The most popular chats? The White House chef, the White House gardener, the White House curator, and whenever we hosted someone to talk about ghosts in the White House.

Don't get me wrong, we had plenty of policy discussions. Policy discussions outnumbered human interest chats by at least 20 to 1 and back then we averaged four or five chats a week. But it was the human interest stuff that people loved.

Video "Ask the White House"?

Our prediction is that we'll see a video version of "Ask the White House" where President Obama answers questions from the public, similar to what Governor Schwarzenegger used to do on his site (Another full disclosure: I was the director of that site as well).

We used to see Obama's campaign manager on YouTube all the time talking in layman's language about what the campaign was doing and how it affected the public.

Keep it up, David

David Plouffe's videos were great. He made you feel like you were part of the campaign -- like you understood what they were doing. And he did it from his webcam. He didn't go to a studio and make a formal presentation. He just talked like a guy.

If they continue to do this (and why wouldn't they), they will continue to connect with average Americans.

This type of communication is what's needed -- whether you voted for Obama or not. It's about bringing the president and his staff to the American people.

The press briefings are one thing. But the model Plouffe followed with his informal webcam discussions will do wonders for the connecting with people.

Although Plouffe has apparently decided not to join the Obama White House (he's writing a book), we look forward to the Obama presidential team following Plouffe's lead.

Importance of interactivity

We were very pleased to see Phillips mention the importance of interactivity in his first blog.

"Citizen participation will be a priority for the Administration, and the Internet will play an important role in that," he wrote. "One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it."

One question though: Will they allow comments on the blog?

First Dog

Oh yeah, the First Dog.

Whenever we talked about Barney on the White House site, traffic soared. We can only imagine once President Obama gets his new dog -- page views will go through the roof.

We think a video camera on Vice President Joe Biden's head, however, would be a wonderful holiday video.

Two thumbs up

Overall, I think the site is a solid first start. If anything, it will be fun watching what this team can pull off. They will certainly face some of the same frustrations that we did. For example, they were just told there will be no Instant Messaging in the White House.

But again, they showed they know how to harness technology to interact and mobilize people during the campaign. It will be fun watching them as the site evolves.

By the way, to see how the design of Whitehouse.gov has evolved over the years, go here to the waybackmachine.

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