“Hey everybody - this is barack,” wrote Reddit user Barack Obama, President of the United States on the popular link-sharing community yesterday, casually launching an “I am a…/Ask Me Anything” thread that gave Reddit’s servers a run for their money, and sparked further contemplation of the idea that crowdsourced interviews will soon render journalists obsolete.
On a campaign stop in Reddit’s hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, as part of a “swing-state tour of college campuses,” President Obama (screenname: PresidentObama) logged onto the site just before 4:30 pm local time, proved his identity with a tweet and a photo (above), and then spent an hour fielding unfiltered questions from the notoriously rowdy Reddit community.
The open interview has been described as a strategy for circumventing the press to communicate directly with voters, and particularly the young men who are Reddit’s dominant demographic. It has also been presented as a ploy to steal some blog inches away from the Republican National Convention, and, of course, as an attempt to come off as being hip, accessible and able to keep pace with the swift-moving currents of the web.
If these were indeed the goals, PresidentObama knocked it out of the park.
He certainly managed to communicate directly with voters: more than 200 questions had reportedly been posted within the first nine minutes, and 200,000 concurrent visitors crashed the site at one point. Furthermore, it is a good sign that many of the 22,998 commentators and counting appear to have capped their usual vitriol to “bathe in the warm glow of charisma, fame and power.”
Obama also kept the mainstream media on its toes (the appearance was kept a secret) and sent the blogosphere into a frenzy, diverting no small amount of digital attention away from the Republican National Convention hours before the speech of vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan.
Finally, he made it quite clear that he is down with the ways of the web, both by affirming his support for Internet Freedom (albeit unsatisfactorily, according to several of the comments such as the high-ranking “Then why did you sign ACTA?”), and by gamely making reference to a popular meme known as “Not Bad Obama” (below). The viral comic is based on a photograph of Barack and Michelle Obama both adorning their eveningwear with expressions that say, “not bad” (also below).
After making his excuses to Redditors (“I need to get going so I'm back in DC in time for dinner”), mentioning the power of the Internet for strengthening democracy and loudly REMINDING THEM TO VOTE, the President’s last words on the thread were: “By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience — NOT BAD!”
Obama’s Reddit interview puts him in good company; others who have opened themselves to public interrogation on the platform include Nobel-laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, television personalities Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert, and a five year-old on the verge of starting kindergarten. Needless to say, he was the highest-profile celebrity yet to start an AMA thread, and brought Reddit the heaviest influx of simultaneous traffic it had ever experienced.
Should Obama's forray onto Reddit be seen as proof that "middlemen" (such as journalists) need no longer come between the public and its representatives, and such platforms are thus rendering the work of professional news outlets redundant when it comes to holding politicians to account?
The short answer is no.
Although the questions were unfiltered and relied on Reddit’s up/down-voting system for prominence, the President was able to choose which ones he wanted to field, how thorough or perfunctory his replies would be, and whether or not to respond to further prompts (the verdict being “not”). As a result, his side of the interview has been described by Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic as “milquetoast defense after quip after simple explainer.”
As the Editors Weblog has asserted in the past, crowdsourced reporting on sites like Reddit provides an illuminating accompaniment to the work of journalists, and they should ignore these tools at their peril. Alone, however, it risks leaving too many questions hanging in the air.
PresidentObama chose to field questions about small businesses, the space programme, his favourite basketball player, the White House’s beer, the corrupting power of money over politics, the job prospects of young graduates, Internet Freedom, his most difficult decision (the surge in troops to Afghanistan), his spare time and the first thing he will do once the verdict is in on November 7. He chose not to answer questions about the trade embargo with Cuba, Guantanamo Bay, the “revolving door” between the Congress and lobbyists... or whether he thinks “cats are horrible.” You win some, you lose some.
Next up to the plate: RivalRomney.
Image courtesy of PresidentObama.