On Obama's Reddit Appearance

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For the next year or so, slide decks across America will have a new photo that proves social media is changing the world. This is it:


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That's President Obama, purportedly during his Ask Me Anything session on the social network Reddit. Ask Me Anythings allow Reddit users to pose queries of all kinds of people from some guy from the show Community to Darrell Issa to the President. 

In short, the conceit is that a famous person climbs down out of his or her bubble and just gets real with the Reddit community. They get intimate. They get honest. 

And sometimes that really works, at least as well as a Terry Gross interview on Fresh Air. The sheer weirdness of the Reddit community's questions can unlock bits and pieces of people who've had to function within the envelope of their public personas. And that's cool and fun and hilarious and sometimes profound.

But, the Reddit AMA is a terrible format for extracting information from a politician.

Think about it this way: a politician gets a captive audience (of say, 200,000 people) to pay attention to and identify with him. The audience gets to ask a bunch of questions from which the politician selects only those he wants to answer. Those he does answer, he can answer at any length and with any level of detail. There are no follow-up questions and answers, no real penalties for ducking.

The AMA presumption is unmediated access by which I mean questions can be about Anything, ("And I mean anything!") and they lack media filtering. Finally, Redditors can hit the President with all those questions that the media won't!!! 

Well, OK. But maybe just asking the question is not really the tough part. Take a look for yourself at the President's answers. It's milquetoast defense after quip after simple explainer. It's a campaign stop (or as Tim Maly put it, "a factory tour"). 

Do you get to bathe in the warm glow of charisma, fame, and power? Sure. Did President Obama give a single answer that he wouldn't to a standard media outlet? I don't think so. In the 10 answers Obama gave, there was not a single one that'd be interesting to Redditors if it had appeared somewhere else. 

Much as many would like to believe that the medium determines the message, a modern politician is never unmediated. Not in a pie shop in Pennsylvania, not at a basketball game, not while having dinner, not on the phone with NASA, not on TV, not doing a Reddit AMA. Reddit is not a mic accidentally left on during a private moment. The kind of intimacy and honesty that Redditors crave does not scale up to national politics, where no one ever lets down his or her guard. Instead of using the stiffness and formality of the MSM to drive his message home, Obama simply used the looseness and casual banter of Reddit to drive his message home. Here more than in almost anything else: Tech is not the answer to the problems of modern politics.* 

This is not to rain on Reddit's parade or to deny the slickness of the Obama campaign's surprise appearance. Nice job everyone, take a bow. But we'll know Reddit has really arrived as a political community when he uses a visit to announce a policy change they've been promoting, perhaps around marijuana policy or civil liberties broadly construed. Until then, it's all kissing babies and shaking hands, only with more LOLs.

* Philip Bump asked me whether this was "the goal or reaction" to Obama's AMA. Which is a fair question. If you asked people whether they thought Reddit's technology would change politics, most people (even on Reddit) would say no. But the hope that technology can flatten hierarchies and disintermediate the media lay beneath the excitement about this development. A President recognized a new constituency that came together without the traditional hierarchies of media, that has few leaders, and that answers to no one. This is all possible because of technology, and (I think, anyway) that's why half my Twitter feed filled up with this event. Sure, it was the novelty, but the novelty portends other things. 
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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