Barack Obama and the Hyper-Connected Government
In the last three-plus years President Barack Obama has accomplished a number of presidential firsts. The most obvious aside: first President with an active Twitter account; first President with a high-profile Facebook page; first sitting President to appear on a late-night comedy show; first sitting President to appear on a day-time talk show; first President on Google+; and today, first President to publicly support gay marriage rights. Men of a certain age will lament the dumbing-down or some such pejorative of modern politics. Blowhard talk-show hosts of a certain political persuasion will lambast a President more concerned with his celebrity than running the country or some such trite rhetoric. The phenomenon of a social media savvy President says more about our society than the man occupying the office. Society has evolved; the modern man necessitates a modern President.
On November 29th, 2010, former-President George W. Bush appeared on Facebook Live in an interview with Founder Mark Zuckerberg. The astute interviewer, Zuckerberg inquired into the former-President’s motivation for appearing in his latest media delivery format: “You’re in the Bay Area, and you’re only speaking to us? Why Facebook?” Bush: “Because you have a lot of people watching and I want to sell books!” In his classic everyman-style, the younger Bush captures it perfectly. Identifying venues to reach wide, diverse audiences is increasingly difficult. Radio, then television, worked because there was no alternative and few programming options, at least early on. Few events draw significant heterogeneous audiences today, very rarely can politics or politicians draw ratings. Outside of national tragedies or major military actions, a President has limited sway on our viewership. Facebook has 700 million users and is growing. By the next election cycle, that number will top 1 billion. You cannot buy that exposure on TV anymore.
Winning political elections and building support for a presidential platform requires engagement with multiple and diverse sects of society. Strategic television appearances on popular entertainment shows, designed to reach differing audiences, is a political necessity to control message branding and the news cycle. We are a generation raised on news blended with entertainment, sensationalism, and breathtaking production value. Face The Nation and 60 Minutes cannot win ratings with superior content; the flashiness and comedic value of Jon Stewart are far more alluring and satisfying leisure time investments. The strategic candidate and President appeals to both, seeking an opportunity to engage with viewers.
Outside of national tragedies or major military actions, a President has limited sway on our viewership. Facebook has 700 million users and is growing. By the next election cycle, that number will top 1 billion. You cannot buy that exposure on TV anymore.
We might be tempted to infer many negatives about the state of society from this decontextualized example. Such generalizations offer little value. We are not somehow made less intelligent or aware of the significance of political events because we recognize and appreciate production value. Media has evolved to blend news and information with entertainment. Technology has evolved to deliver content anywhere, anytime, on-demand. A President ignoring these realities is tone-deaf to the nation he/she has been elected to serve and lead.
Increasing social engagement influences policies and positions. Until very recently, information about current events and the perception of popular reaction to those events has been filtered through the interests of media moguls and the vertically-integrated empires of delivery they lorded over. With instantaneous feedback on Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. giving pollsters and observers direct data from wide social segments, better conclusions about national opinions can be drawn.
An idea like gay marriage, much maligned in conventional news sources where offending the religious right is financial suicide, finds a far different perception in the less constricted social media arena. In news described as shocking and stunning and outrageous, President Obama announced his view of the gay marriage issue has evolved. While we suspect Barack Obama the man has long favored the idea of legal recognition of same-sex relationships, candidate and President Barack Obama could not politically afford to say so; until now. Opinions on human rights have shifted in large part due to the unfiltered stream of conversation through social media. The Arab Spring demonstrated this effectively as events with limited direct media coverage were widely digested in an intricate network of Twitter feeds and Facebook page updates. We are forming opinions outside traditional means of social shaping and modeling. The President has taken a risk, but a well-calculated one. More Americans support equal rights for same-sex partners than oppose, social media has enabled us to recognize it.
The world is changed. A hyper-connected society requires a hyper-connected government. Ignoring the amazing improvements in communication technology to adhere to some idealized version of intellectual elitism is simply wrong. Welcome to the era of the Modern President, there will be no going back.