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President Obama and Social Media: Dreams and Reality

This is an article that I wrote for publication called “Media Bullseye.” Thought that it might be timely and I hope that you guys enjoy.


President Obama and Social Media: Dreams and Reality

Shortly after the November elections, I began a meme, asking some brighter minds than
my own what they thought the impact of the election of now President
Obama would have on the advancement of social media in government.
It’s clearly mainstream in the world of business, but what is
going to happen on January 21st, 2009? Or 2010 for that

President Obama clearly demonstrated a link between citizen participation in the electoral
process and the clever use of social media. This is likely to
continue as he and the Democrats, according
to the Los Angeles Times
, will:

“…transform his massive grass-roots political machinery into an unprecedented
national network to help pass his policy agenda.

Obama said Organizing for America, the new network, would be used as a tool
to press for policies on major issues, including the healthcare
system, the Iraq war and the development of new energy sources. He
also said the effort would be housed in a distinctly partisan place:
the Democratic National Committee.”

That will likely help Mr. Obama’s prospects for reelection in 2012, but what about
governing and the use of social media? What will change (dot gov)?

In my original blog post, my opinion was “not
much,” and I based this upon an article in the
Huffington Post
that called for a “Wiki White
House,” including blogs, streamed meetings, policy wikis, etc.
My opinion was and is that very little of that will work when
the idealist rubber hits the governance road:

  • Blogs: White house staffers may, in fact, be allowed to have
    their own blogs, but they will be so watered down by legal concerns
    that I fear that they might turn into a Twitter feed: “Just
    went out for coffee. Tastes burnt.” In a town where secrets
    are coveted but leaks like a sieve, there would be little compelling
    news to keep a blog fresh, but more importantly, interesting. The
    lawyers will do what they do, which is lawyer things to death.

  • Streamed meetings: Only the most vanilla meetings will be
    streamed. There is a reason why reporters are kicked out of the
    room when the real stuff happens. Anything else would be staged
    like a FEMA press conference.

  • Daily calendar. The President’s daily calendar would
    have to omit outside appearances, which would gut its effectiveness,
    because of Secret Service prohibitions. And why tell the opposition
    party that you are meeting on something that you might want to keep
    in-house. To do otherwise would be stupid.

Other people chimed in too on the difficulty of the task, including
Geoff Livingston

“Here are [a few] reasons why Obama isn’t going to be turn the switch
on walking in the door:

  • Sheer Girth: We’re talking about 26 federal agencies
    here, each the size of their very own automobile manufacturer. Think
    changing those organizations are hard? Try moving a bureaucratic
    organization that’s got no adherence to Wall Street, no real
    accountability to anyone (please don’t say Congress), with
    decades of strange processes and legal entanglements, legacy
    contracts already in place, and demoralized staff that have been
    abused for eight years by incompetent political appointees.

  • Culture of Fear: Government employees are afraid that if they
    do communicate, they will have their butts handed to them courtesy
    of the Washington Post or some other “investigative
    reporter” seeking to expose government ills.

No, the challenges for Obama are deep and significant. I expect change we
will, but we won’t quickly. Think the 2010-2011 timeframe.”

Jonathan Trenn said:

“Now, no doubt that Obama will be the most Web 2.0 president in
history. No doubt his White House will be more open than that of his
predecessor. But what we’ll see happen is that most citizens
will feel that their lone solitary voice isn’t enough. They’ll
need to bind together with like-minded people. And since they all
can’t head to Washington, from time to time they’ll make
sure that someone does speak for them here. These people are called

We’ll definitely see change; it just won’t be as engaging as many

There are other great contributors to the debate like David
and Matthew
, but my thinking is that Government is a
Beast, a battleship that many a president-elect has vowed to change.
Do I sincerely hope that our perhaps Blackberry-toting President
realizes the power of social media to unleash information, create
transparency and make government more efficient? Absolutely.

Do I think that Mr. Obama is going to run into the same buzz saw of
Washington homeostasis encountered by his predecessors? You bet
your bippy

Mark Story is a part-time,
adjunct professor at Georgetown University
, a
full-time communications professional at a government agency in
Washington, D.C and writes the
of Online and Offline
” blog. Prior to the
government, Mark worked for 12 years in some of the largest online
public relations shops in the world. Tweet him at

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