How the Internet Has Become an Outlet for Lonely Teens—and Barack Obama

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More than a stunt, the president's upcoming Google+ Hangout might be a real and rare chance for him to interact with citizens.

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The Obama White House announced Monday that, in conjunction with tonight's State of the Union address, it's going to be holding what the kids are calling a "hangout' over on what the kids are calling "Google+." If you're unfamiliar, a Google+ Hangout integrates live-streaming video in an effort to mimic the sort of casual interaction "hanging out" implies offline. The White House event is scheduled for next Monday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. EST. Details are still being worked out, the White House says, but President Obama is slated to respond to questions submitted and voted on by the public, with curation by Google (a subject for another post). Some of those folks offering questions can "even be invited to join the President in the Hangout and take part in the live conversation."

On one level, the Google+ move is a piece of the White House's strategy of using digital tools to extend the message of their annual State of the Union. But it's worth a another look in light of The Obamas, Jodi Kantor's book on life as the president of the United States.

A (if not the) driving theme in Kantor's deeply reported book is just how isolating life in the White House has turned out to be for Obama. He's said to feel trapped in a Washington of misplaced priorities, despairing at how muddled the outside world's understanding was of his presidency. "Only five years before he became president," Kantor writes, "Obama was advertising his email address (senobama@aol.com) in the Hyde Park Herald, and during the presidential campaign, he had kept in touch via Blackberry with hundreds, maybe thousands of people -- former law professors, basketball buddies, donors, and relatives. Now the network he had spent his life building was no longer accessible by email; because of legal and security concerns, he could only correspond with his top advisors and a few friends." In addition, meetings were stiff, scripted affairs. Obama mines aides for new news, and asks for 10 letters everyday from the scores sent by the public to the White House.

"Compared with real, everyday contact with the outside world," writes Kantor, "ten letters seemed like nothing. But in the White House, it was something, and the president referenced them constantly."

Isolated? Misunderstood? Overwhelmed by the sense that someplace, anyplace, is better than here? Sound familiar? Actually, it sounds an awful lot like the teens and tweens discussed in this New York Times piece from over the weekend about the work of Dr. danah boyd, a digital researcher at who studies the online practices of young people (and who does not capitalize her name):

"Children's ability to roam has basically been destroyed," Dr. Boyd said in her office at Microsoft, where a view of the Boston skyline is echoed in the towers of books on her shelves, desk and floor. "Letting your child out to bike around the neighborhood is seen as terrifying now, even though by all measures, life is safer for kids today."

Children naturally congregate on social media sites for the relatively unsupervised conversations, flirtations, immature humor, and social exchanges that are the normal stuff of teenage hanging-out, she said.

[B]oyd goes on to argue that rather than worrying so much about kids and teens being preyed upon by online predators, we should recognize that the Internet might be a way for kids abused in offline life -- where serious abuse is more likely to occur -- to connect with adults in a safe and easy space.

None of this is to infantilize Obama. It's just that as forces (scare tactics, suburbanization) have conspired to make American kids circa 2012 structurally isolated, the modern White House is an isolating place. If political Washington is removed from the rest of the country, the White House is all the more so. At the center of the public consciousness, it's also something of a fortress. Metal detectors, gates, and guest lists mean that few people are popping over just to chat, chew ideas, and challenge your basic premises. The effect on a person can be strange: Kantor writes that upon visiting Obama in the Oval Office to discuss sustainable architecture and New Orleans, professional actor Brad Pitt was rendered nearly totally mute. Meanwhile, digital spaces tend to break down hierarchies and formalities; author Susan Cain recently wrote, "The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work." In that context, if 10 letters is a lifeline, it's difficult to see hanging out in a livestream chat as insignificant -- particularly when the people you're hanging get to talk back in living color.

In that context, a Google+ Hangout becomes a tool not just for output, but for input -- not only for the president, but for the rest of those in and around the White House, too.

It might all seem very trivial. But it has to seem somewhat less trivial this week of all weeks. This past Friday, the Senate backed off pursuing its Protect IP Act after a huge outpouring of digital push back. A trio of White House officials responded only after petitions on the topic gained momentum on "We the People," the White House's public platform for digital social engagement, which has been derided as some by gimmicky but managed to force the controversial yet heretofore obscure topic right into the White House bubble.

Image: Reuters

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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