Obama for America's outbound director on the origin, and future, of the first presidential campaign Tumblr
The president was not impressed.
Or, more accurately, the president was Not Impressed. When, earlier this month, the newly re-elected commander-in-chief met the gymnasts of the U.S. Olympic team, he did what any president would do: He took a photo op, posing with the Fierce Five in the Oval Office. But he also did something that not every president would do: He took a meme op. The president stood next to McKayla Maroney, she of #notimpressed fame, and the pair reenacted her signature scowl.
The photo that resulted -- a months-old meme, ossified in Internet time, made fresh by the fact that it was being acted out by a president -- was promptly posted to the Obama campaign's Tumblr, barackobama.tumblr.com, where it joined a series of fellow memes -- and animated GIFs, and videos, and snappy commentary, and earnest commentary, and other such Items of Internet. The image of a meme-faced Commander-in-Chief, cheeky and epic at the same time, was -- or, at least, seemed -- tailor-made for social media. And for, in particular, Tumblr, a medium that manages to mix irony and sincerity in pretty much equal measure.
Memes, both despite and because of their smallness, represent a significant shift in participatory politics.
Campaign 2012 has been dubbed, fairly or not, the "Meme Election." And it was, all in all, the most documented, and probably the most participated-in, campaign in living
memery memory. Much of its pageantry was live-GIFed. Obama's victory in it was met, unsurprisingly, by image round-ups with names like "Yes, We GIFed." And GIF we did. We also hashtagged and parody-accounted and meme-made and fixtedthatforyoued and bindered and Big Birded and Eastwooded our way through many, many months of pervasive politicking -- to the extent that a section of Know Your Meme has been dedicated to covering, simply, the "2012 United States Presidential Election." Though it's easy to overattribute the effect that all this Internet-y activity had on the election's outcome itself -- memes are small; the country is large -- it's also pretty obvious that memes and their counterparts, both despite and because of their smallness, represent a significant shift in participatory politics. Which is to say, in politics.
"I think whether the memeification of the election is a good or a bad thing is not exactly the point," Kate Miltner, memeologist and Atlantic contributor, put it. "This is just The Way We Election Now, and that comes with a whole host of implications."
For the candidate who won the campaign, those implications might be best embodied in the Tumblr that plays host to the new memes and new messages and a #notimpressed president. (The Romney campaign had a Tumblr, too, which seems to have been abandoned on election day; it is, aside from the fact that it is hosted on Tumblr, not very Tumblry.) The Tumblr was a side project for the Obama campaign and for Laura Olin, who served as Obama for America's outbound director (which essentially means its social media guru, though please do not call her that). Curating content for the Tumblr, culling through its user submissions, and updating it, Olin told me in a Gchat, took up a small fraction -- 5 percent or so -- of her regular workday, with some additional time devoted to it on the weekends. It was something she balanced with other, more immediate, outreach duties -- among them, manning the campaign's other social media accounts. But Tumblr was also, she noted, "probably my favorite part."
That's partly because Tumblr is generally, in ways that other social media platforms aren't always, lighthearted. It is generally, in ways that high-stakes political campaigns aren't always, fun. On Tumblr, Olin and her team could post, on behalf of the president, things like this. And like this. And like this and this and this. They could joke and wink and otherwise Internet, in a context that both suited and rewarded the effort. In a campaign whose whole point was to convert voters from potential to actual, the Obama for America staff could tackle that stark task much more subtly than the blunt forces of political persuasion typically allow. They could build community -- and the kind of group accountability that comes with it. An engaged voter is a likely voter.
The Tumblr could be part of a strategy, without being obviously strategic.
Tumblr's current status as a communications platform -- as a digital space that is, with more than 82 million quirky blogs hosted, popular and niche at the same time -- gave Olin and her team additional freedom when it came to using, and leveraging, its network. Tumblr, Olin points out, is creation-oriented as much as it's sharing-oriented: It's a platform that, in particular, rewards originality. That meant that Tumblr, as a broad community, was generally receptive to the original art and graphics being generated by the campaign itself; but it also meant that, in curating other people's content, the campaign could meet the medium on its own terms, serving up stuff that was a little more insider-y, a little more experimental, a little more creative.
"No one had done a campaign Tumblr before, obviously," Olin points out, "so we didn't entirely know how it would go." But uncharted territory is also open territory. And "because Tumblr is a younger community, and a bit more obscure," Olin says, "we had more freedom to do stuff we wouldn't necessarily do elsewhere." The Tumblr could be part of a strategy, without being obviously strategic.
Olin, who joined the campaign in its early days of March 2011, began pitching the idea of a Tumblr to the rest of the campaign's then-small digital team that summer -- "knowing," she said, "that the demographics skew toward young and progressive people." It didn't take much convincing. Tumblr's power as a network was obvious, particularly when it came to reaching those young progressives -- a key constituency for the campaign. ("The Tumblr," Olin told me, "grew out of a desire to reach younger voters.") The site, Obama for America digital chiefs Joe Rospars and Teddy Goff having signed off on it, launched in October 2011, with a post titled "HI, TUMBLR." That message set the tone for the posts that would follow: It emphasized both earnestness and whimsy, idiosyncrasy and community. "We're looking at this as an opportunity to create something that's not just ours," it said, "but yours, too."
As the months passed -- some of them seeing more than 100 updates to the Tumblr -- the initial and collaborative ethos remained. It was evident in this voter-produced take on the benefits of Obamacare. And in this user-submitted letter chastising Mitt Romney's dismissal of youthful Democrats. And in this student-written testimony to student loans. As a mechanism of political engagement, the Tumblr, for all its webbiness, embraced a kind of back-to-the-future sensibility: a suggestion of what campaign messaging looked like in previous ages, when it played out on the community level. But it also hints at what can happen when political communication trades the massness of TV and radio for the web's ability to target taillored groups. As an experimental side project, Barackobama (dot-tumblr-dot-com) had an opportunity that was less plainly available on the campaign's official website, or its more traditional social media outlets, or its outreach efforts on TV or radio or direct mail: It could, basically, preach to the choir. It could take its community, in the best way possible, for granted.
And it could, crucially, communicate with that group in an environment that was particularly friendly to community itself. "We encountered a lot of trolls on other other platforms," Olin points out -- an inevitability, probably, given the inherent partisanship of presidential campaigns. And yet! "There was so little hate on Tumblr," she says. Part of that was by design. Tumblr founder David Karp's development of the platform's reblog feature -- which requires that comments be posted on users' own streams, rather than on traditional comments sections -- means that nasty or otherwise ill-advised comments show up on your own property, rather than on someone else's. On Tumblr, you own your trolling. "It's such a small thing," Olin says. But it "makes a world of difference."
The Tumblr wasn't so much a mechanism of persuasion as it was a brand ambassador -- the brand, in this case, being a president.
And it made the Obama for America Tumblr community ... an actual community. With all the benefits that can come along with it. The Tumblr wasn't so much a mechanism of persuasion as it was a brand ambassador -- the brand, in this case, being a president. The real power of social, Olin points out, isn't just sharing; it's getting people to ask their friends to do things -- "because that's so much more powerful than for us to ask less engaged people to do it." That kind of action-by-proxy means something slightly different on Tumblr than it does on Twitter and, particularly, on Facebook, where users are more used (and more numbed?) to traditional brand messaging. The sincerity of the platform encourages a special kind of engagement. If Facebook and Twitter -- not to mention TV and radio -- represented something more like the Big Tent approach to campaign communications, the one-size-fits-most strategy of politicking, Tumblr offered an inverse proposition: the niche, networked.
That logic, now that the election has ended -- now that votes are no longer the primary objective of Obama for America -- will change, slightly. But in this age of the permanent campaign, the Tumblr will continue in a similar, if necessarily re-oriented, form. Olin herself is still maintaining it -- see this little Joe Biden gem -- and will continue to do so, as part of the campaign wind-down team, until the end of the year. After that, she says, "we'll eventually hand it (and @BarackObama and all our other social media accounts) over to the next iteration of the campaign organization, which will continue to rally grassroots support for the president's agenda over the course of his second term." The Tumblr will die. Long live the Tumblr!
"As for me," Olin said, "after wind-down I'm moving to Brooklyn and getting a dog. But that's about all I'm sure of right now."