Obama Online: Much Ado About Nothing?

Every once in a while, you know you’re reading something that you should tuck away, so that you can look back at it years later, if for nothing but to appreciate the passage of time. That’s what happened when I read a New York Times story titled “Obama’s Social Media Team Tries to Widen Audience for State of the Union Address.”

“To not have an aggressive social media strategy in 2015 would be the equivalent of not having an aggressive TV strategy in the 1950s” said Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior advisor and described in the NYT as Obama’s “most vocal advocate of digital communication.”

This, I feel, may not be the most apt comparison for Pfeiffer to make, because it seems politicians did not seem to have much of a TV “strategy” at all back then. (Maybe, slyly, Pfeiffer may have been making that precise point too, but I don’t think so.)

So maybe Pfeiffer, probably inadvertently, is right. On the one hand, a lot of politicians know nothing about using social media and streaming video. On the other hand, Obama seems to get high marks just for trying it. A lot of what the White House (and separately, his campaign) did online is best measured in tonnage, not effectiveness. Or else seemingly people-friendly initiatives wouldn’t have been hammered into the dirt for most of his presidency.

I’d bet politicians will be much better at it in time for the 2016 election, as over-the-top devices and increased emphasis on video advertising from Facebook and Twitter will begin to make an impression, despite what stodgy consensus-followers politicians are. Obama’s efforts will look about as clunky as early cellphones look today. 

So for online users, these may be the good old days, before politicians really get their grubby paws all over the keyboards.

Much is being made now about how Obama has essentially delivered his State of the Union address to the media, and to crowds around the country, and online, before he actually delivers it tonight. But there’s a kind of self-consciousness to the things I’ve seen online, and very little of it was made expressly for online consumption.

Some has. Last week, the White House uploaded a video fo Obama from the Oval Office to Upworthy, giving a preview of his plans for improving broadband service. He showed a chart of slow-poke download speeds from some major U.S. cities and, more pointedly, much faster ones from cities around the world. Some smaller places in the U.S. that have done a better job. But in the end, this looked a lot like the president giving a speech, except he was leaning on his desk and using an iPad to show the charts, and his suit coat wasn’t on. Whoo-hoo. 

Tonight, the Office of Digital Strategies at the White House will be the place running the show as the State of the Union is live streamed on, where right now Obama is presented in a video the way that looks a little like one of those NFL profiles just before the big game, but without the the narrator. Maybe he needs the narrator?

The NYT says President’s videos, tweets and other postings have built interest across the country, all around the White House, others are now trying how to tap into the streaming consciousness.  But President Obama has been in office since 2009. It seems to me that, like online advertisers and content providers, it’s taken awhile for the White House to come not very far at all.
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