The Social Media President?

ObamaTwitter300Behind Ashton Kutcher’s and Brittany Spears’ Twitter feeds, President Barack Obama’s is the fourth most popular feed, with more than 3 million followers. Is it any wonder, for a candidate who made social media a pillar of his successful bid for the presidency? It also made his admission last November all the more disconcerting when in front of a crowd of Chinese youth, the President admitted he had never used Twitter.

Much to-do was made of Candidate Obama’s social media strategy to reach out to untapped constituencies and raise millions in political contributions. He had presence on scores of social media sites – MySpace, Facebook, BlackPlanet and Eons – with his my.BarackObama.com site hailed as the embodiment of online grassroots campaigning. The result was more than half-a-billion in donations, the majority made online and in amounts of $100 or less.

We can credit this success both to Obama’s media savvy as well as to his crack team of social media strategists who appreciated how leveraging the technology and plugging into the digital dialogue could build momentum, especially with younger voters.

President Obama began his first day in office signing an executive order for all White House departments to create a “system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.” Technocrats celebrated it as the dawn of a new era in politics. Then what?

A year after Obama’s swearing in, it’s been a lackluster showing by the administration on the social media front. Months after taking office, his Twitter feed remained surprisingly silent. No mention of what Bo the dog was up to, not even what the White House chef was making for lunch. Time magazine followed up on the White House social networking strategy in May 2009, calling President Obama’s technological transformation “very much a work in progress.” What happened?

Governance in the age of Web 2.0 is proving to be quite the challenge. It’s one thing to control the message when marketing a political candidate, as the Obama campaign did quite successfully. It’s another thing altogether when attempting to frame the online dialogue for such hot-button topics as the failing economy, the war in Afghanistan or health care reform. Web 2.0 may very well be about engaging people in conversation, but can you have a substantial conversation with 300 million people?

The constituency has become accustomed to the “Wikipedia model” of online interaction, said Jose Antonio Vargas in the Washington Post a year ago. The “wisdom-of-the-crowd, I-have-something-to-contribute” voter comes in direct conflict with politics-as-usual, and with the top-down way that laws and policies have always been framed in this country.

Still, there has been some progress. By the middle of the Obama Administration’s first year, 25 government agencies had YouTube channels. The Library of Congress began posting historical photos on Flickr. The White House itself had a presence on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter. The first White House tweet wasn’t until the Spring of 2009, and it was not about what Obama was doing, but about where you could find resources on swine flu. And on Monday, Obama took questions directly from the public and for 40 minutes on YouTube on issues as diverse as solar power to supporting small business.

Perhaps Obama’s ties to social networking served him best during these most recent debates on health care reform. Using the model of phone-banking and meet-ups that he relied on during his campaign, Obama put a call out through Facebook, Twitter and on BarackObama.com to encourage his supporters to contact their representatives. According to the Democratic National Committee, the result set a new record for its Organizing for America program, with more than 200,000 calls made in a single day. With the debate still raging, its impact remains to be seen, but it reminds us that social media is still a viable tool for mobilization.

On the other hand, it’s safe to say that Government 2.0 is still in its infancy. As White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs recently admitted on C-SPAN, filtering software still bars many White House employees from even accessing social networking sites.

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