President Obama has been called the “first social-media president.” It’s both a true and a misleading characterization. On the one hand, the Obama White House was indeed the first presidency to make use of services like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. But on the other hand, these services either didn’t exist or weren’t used by a broad public before Barack Obama took office in 2009. The White House brags that Obama was the first to tweet from @POTUS on Twitter, to go live on Facebook, to use a filter on Snapchat. But in truth, any president in office during the last eight years probably would have become the first social-media president.
That doesn’t mean that any president would have been good at it, however. John F. Kennedy is widely considered the first television president, but he wasn’t the first one to appear on TV. Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to appear on television, and Truman was the first, in 1947, to make a televised presidential address. But it was Kennedy who mastered the medium, starting with his famous televised debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, and continuing with the televised news conferences and interviews that characterized his presidency.
Like JFK was good at TV, Obama is good at social media. Before his presidency, Obama was already inseparable from his BlackBerry, and as a self-described “nerd” and “geek,” his interest in science and technology helped spur his administration to pursue and manage public communication and engagement with today’s digital services and tools.
But what if Obama was too good at social media? Maybe America didn’t need a social-media president, but a president whose technological savvy could apply to legislation and governance as much as public communication.
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Last October, the White House announced a “digital transition”—the process by which the Obama presidency would hand over the reins to its various social-media accounts, their followers kept intact, while also resetting and archiving their former contents in compliance with the Presidential Records Act. Normally, such preservation seals materials up in physical repositories, such as those maintained at the National Archives or the various presidential libraries. But the Obama White House hoped to “ensure these materials continue to be accessible on the platforms where they were created,” a savvy acknowledgement of the fact that a tweet or an Instagram post doesn’t make sense stripped from its context.
In addition to these expected steps, the White House also expressed its commitment to share its social-media content with the American people—both via accessible, downloadable archives, where possible, and also through tools and gadgets that might present the content in new and synthetic ways. In service of the latter goal, the White House invited the public to submit “creative ways to archive this content and make it both useful and available for years to come.”
The White House demonstrated remarkable astuteness toward this end, both culturally and rhetorically. It explicitly invited “students, data engineers, artists, and researchers” to contribute—just the communities likely to feel adept and engaged with the technological sphere. It reaffirmed that the Obama administration was up on the latest trends, suggesting Twitter bots, query tools, and metadata services as examples of possible submissions. It used keywords commensurate with the values and rhetoric of the technology community. And most importantly, it issued the call in the form of a short-term contest, of sorts: submissions were to be completed “no later than mid-December ,” or about two months after the call was first issued.
History is slow, but technology is fast. Despite the real purpose of a presidential archive—to produce an accessible record for posterity—The White House knew that urgency would give it one last chance to tout Obama’s technological acumen to the public.
The results are now in. This week, the White House announced the “innovative” archival projects they selected from the December submissions.
And for anyone who follows and enjoys technology services, the results are indeed delightful. The GIF search engine Giphy created a landing page for Obama-era animated GIFs and White House Vines (the Twitter-owned short video service that shut down last fall). The archiving platform ArchiveSocial launched a search engine that consolidates queries across all the White House social media platforms. Students at the University of Texas, Austin and NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) announced plans for an “Obamathon” hackathon, to take place today. And the creative technology studio Feel Train announced @Relive44, a Twitter account that will repost White House tweets in real time over the next eight years. The MIT Media Lab’s Electome project offers a visualization of how @POTUS communicated with citizens.
The language White House Office of Digital Strategy Director of Product Management (and former Facebook employee) Joshua Miller used to announce the projects could just as easily have been penned by a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur in a Kickstarter campaign or a Medium post. Innovation is celebrated, along with the wherewithal of students, companies, and organizations to “answer this call to action” to tell the story of how the Obama presidency has used digital platforms for civic engagement. As is common practice in politics as much as technology, the unpaid labor of volunteers is heralded as the great promise of the current and future historical project. The White House hopes, Miller writes, “that their creations would inspire people (like you) to dive into the archives themselves.” In its final act, the first Social Media presidency offers an Obamaesque nod to the values of the technology industry it used to the point of obsession.
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To sneer at the White House’s efforts in this regard is sure to make me seem like a spoilsport or a killjoy. Haven’t you been charmed by the Barack and Michelle GIFs at GIPHY? Won’t you find Feel Train’s performance of Obama’s tweets both tender and wry in their future juxtapositions? Will ArchiveSocial’s search tool not prove useful to amateur and professional historians alike? Yes, of course.
But these projects also affirm the dark underbelly of the social media era. The compression of complex ideas into tweetable sound-bites. The victory of sentiment and affect over reason and fact on the internet. The belief that large information archives can produce knowledge of the present, and of history, by exalting data correlation over all other methods of knowledge production. The tendency to privilege technological discourse over all other topics. The celebration of quick-draw contests and hackathons, pursued with an entrepreneur’s short-term attention, as the ultimate means of invention. The silent privileging of those with the time and resources to jump at the invitation to work for free, on no notice, over a period of weeks to curry favor and attention.
For all the tweets and Facebook posts and YouTube videos and Pinterest pins and Snapchat snaps the Obama White House produced and disseminated, the main work it did was to further establish the unquestioned utility and righteousness of digital communications technology in the modern era. Citizens are dazzled and drawn to an image of Barack Obama staring into a smartphone or looped in a short GIF or Vine because such images condone and affirm their own fixation with these technologies. Even when those technologies dramatically alter civic and personal life, as companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have also done since 2008.
As Obama leaves office, the digital tools he quietly celebrated have also hollowed out American life. Surveillance capitalism has made data extraction, aggregation, resale, and speculation the hidden engine of wealth and progress (for those few fortunate enough to pursue rather than to be pursued by it). The ability to create and widely disseminate information as credible and accurate, no matter its relationship to reality. The obsession with immediacy and attention over longevity and conviction. The consolidation of media and information, particularly local media, in the hands of a few large companies with limited commitment to civic good. While the first social media presidency was busy tweeting and Snapchatting, supposedly for public engagement, it did precious little to address the impacts of these and other effects of technology on the American public as matters of public policy.
Ultimately, history will judge the 44th president, online and off. But instead of the “first social media presidency,” I wonder if Obama’s legacy won’t instead be that of the “cool dad presidency.” What people liked about Obama’s relationship to technology is that it was so much like their own. Obama was relatable and with-it. He clutched his smartphone as much as anyone. He could make a post go viral and deserve it. But maybe what America needed from 2009 to 2017 wasn’t a cool dad to tweet and stream alongside its citizens. Maybe it needed a guardian to watch and safeguard it against its own worst habits.