Starting around 4:30 PM ET today, President Barack Obama made history by going onto Reddit to answer questions about anything for an hour. Reddit, one of the most popular social news sites on the Internet, has been hosting “Ask Me Anything” forums — or AMAs – for years, including sessions with prominent legislators like Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), but to host a sitting President of the United States will elevate Reddit’s prominence in the intersection of technology and politics. AllThingsD has the story of Reddit got the President onto the site. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told Peter Kafka that “there are quite a few redditors at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and at the campaign HQ — given the prominence of reddit, it’s an easy sell.”
President Obama made some news in the process, with respect to the Supreme Court decision that allowed super political action committees, or “Super PACs,” to become part of the campaign finance landscape.
“Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it),” commented President Obama. “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”
President Obama announced that he’d be participating in the AMA in a tweet and provided photographic evidence that he was actually answering questions in an image posted to Reddit (above) and in a second tweet during the session.
Hey, everyone: I’ll be taking your questions online today. Ask yours here: OFA.BO/gBof44 -bo
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 29, 2012
The timing of the AMA was at least a little political, coming after a speech in Virginia and falling upon the third day of the Republic National Convention, but it is unequivocally a first, in terms of a president directly engaging with the vibrant Reddit community.
Many people also tweeted that they were having trouble accessing the page during the AMA, as tens of thousands of users tried to access the forum. According to The Verge, President Obama’s AMA was the most popular post in Reddit’s history, with more than 200,000 visitors on the site concurrently. (Presidential Q&As apparently melts servers almost as much as being Biebered.)
Given that Reddit was hosting its first public conversation with the President of the United States, and they had to know it would attract tremendous attention online, it’s fair to say that they should have added more server capacity. That’s true for any online platform, in fact, now or in the future, that chooses to serve as infrastructure for hosting a public conversation: if they’re going to take on that responsibility, make the investment to sustain it. The additional server capacity that SCOTUSBlog added for the historic Supreme Court decision on the Patient Performance and Affordable Care Act is a worthy precedent to look to here.)
Today’s AMA is only the latest example of presidents experimenting with online platforms, from President Clinton and President Bush posting text on WhiteHouse.gov to President Obama joining rebooting that platform on Drupal. More recently, President Obama has participated in a series of online ‘town halls’ using social media, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the first presidential Hangout on Google+.
His use of all them deserves to be analyzed critically, in terms of whether the platforms and events were being used to shine the credential of a tech-savvy chief executive in an election year or to genuinely answer the questions and concerns of the citizens he serves.
In analyzing the success of such experiments in digital democracy, it’s worth looking at whether the questions answered were based upon the ones most citizens wanted to see asked (on Reddit, counted by upvotes) and whether the answers given were rehashed talking points or specific to the intent of the questions asked. On the first part of that rubric, President Obama scored high: he answered each of the top-voted questions in the AMA, along with a few personal ones.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 29, 2012
On the rest of those counts, you can judge for yourself. The president’s answers are below:
“Hey everybody – this is barack. Just finished a great rally in Charlottesville, and am looking forward to your questions. At the top, I do want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with folks who are dealing with Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf, and to let them know that we are going to be coordinating with state and local officials to make sure that we give families everything they need to recover.”
On Internet freedom: “Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody – from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although there will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won’t stray from that principle – and it will be reflected in the platform.”
On space exploration: “Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level – so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.”
On helping small businesses and relevant bills: “We’ve really focused on this since I came into office – 18 tax cuts for small business, easier funding from the SBA. Going forward, I want to keep taxes low for the 98 percent of small businesses that have $250,000 or less in income, make it easier for small business to access financing, and expand their opportunities to export. And we will be implementing the Jobs Act bill that I signed that will make it easier for startups to access crowd-funding and reduce their tax burden at the start-up stage.”
Most difficult decision you had to make this term? “The decision to surge our forces in afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you. The decision did help us blunt the taliban’s momentum, and is allowing us to transition to afghan lead – so we will have recovered that surge at the end of this month, and will end the war at the end of 2014. But knowing of the heroes that have fallen is something you never forget.”
On the influence of money in politics “Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress – to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”
On prospects for recent college grads – in this case, a law school grad: I understand how tough it is out there for recent grads. You’re right – your long term prospects are great, but that doesn’t help in the short term. Obviously some of the steps we have taken already help young people at the start of their careers. Because of the health care bill, you can stay on your parent’s plan until you’re twenty six. Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry. But the key for your future, and all our futures, is an economy that is growing and creating solid middle class jobs – and that’s why the choice in this election is so important. The other party has two ideas for growth – more taxs cuts for the wealthy (paid for by raising tax burdens on the middle class and gutting investments like education) and getting rid of regulations we’ve put in place to control the excesses on wall street and help consumers. These ideas have been tried, they didnt work, and will make the economy worse. I want to keep promoting advanced manufacturing that will bring jobs back to America, promote all-American energy sources (including wind and solar), keep investing in education and make college more affordable, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in science, and reduce our deficit in a balanced way with prudent spending cuts and higher taxes on folks making more than $250,000/year. I don’t promise that this will solve all our immediate economic challenges, but my plans will lay the foundation for long term growth for your generation, and for generations to follow. So don’t be discouraged – we didn’t get into this fix overnight, and we won’t get out overnight, but we are making progress and with your help will make more.”
First thing he’ll do on November 7th: “Win or lose, I’ll be thanking everybody who is working so hard – especially all the volunteers in field offices all across the country, and the amazing young people in our campaign offices.”
How do you balance family life and hobbies with being POTUS? “It’s hard – truthfully the main thing other than work is just making sure that I’m spending enough time with michelle and the girls. The big advantage I have is that I live above the store – so I have no commute! So we make sure that when I’m in DC I never miss dinner with them at 6:30 pm – even if I have to go back down to the Oval for work later in the evening. I do work out every morning as well, and try to get a basketball or golf game in on the weekends just to get out of the bubble. Speaking of balance, though, I need to get going so I’m back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating – this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER – if you need to know how to register, go to Gottaregister.com. By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience – NOT BAD!”
On +The White House homebrew recipe “It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.”
A step forward for digital democracy?
The most interesting aspect of that Presidential Hangout was that it introduced the possibility of unscripted moments, where a citizen could ask an unexpected question, and the opportunity for followups, if an answer wasn’t specific enough.
Reddit doesn’t provide quite the same mechanism for accountability at a live Hangout, in terms of putting an elected official on the spot to answer. Unfortunately, the platform of Reddit itself falls short here: there’s no way to force a politician to circle back and give a better answer, in the way, say, Mike Wallace might have on “60 Minutes.” That doesn’t mean that users of the platform can’t post good question, however — the query about campaign finance that made news was asked by Suzanne Merkelson, an associate editor at “The Republic Report.” Merkelsen, who has been covering the Republican National Convention in Tampa, moved quickly to pose her question on the AMA and saw some dividends from that entrepreneurial move.
Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at the Atlantic, is clear about the issues with a Reddit AMA: “it’s a terrible format for extracting information from a politician.”
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.
Today’s exchange, however, does hint at the tantalizing dynamic that makes it alluring: that the Internet is connecting you and your question to the most powerful man in the world, directly, and that your online community can push for him to answer it.
President Obama ended today’s AMA by thanking everyone on Reddit for participating and wrote that “this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run.”
Well, it’s a start. Thank you for logging on today, Mr. President. Please come back online and answer some more follow up questions.
This post has been updated with more analysis and links.