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.