White House recognizes Grammy winner on Twitter, links to performance on YouTube

Esperanza Spalding won a Grammy for Best New Artist tonight. She’s an extraordinary talent. Moments after her win, White House new media director Macon Phillips congratulated her on Twitter and linked to a video of her performance at the White House Poetry Jam on YouTube:

Shortly after that, the White House account shared the same video, along with a link to all of the performances on the White House YouTube channel. Congratulations to Spalding for the well-deserved recognition. (Sorry to the Justin Bieber fans out there. Sources say his millions of fans and followers may provide some comfort after the loss).

Postscript on government and social media

I wrote on my personal blog that it was “good to know there are some music fans down the road at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Elsewhere on Govloop, Kanga Ellis had made it clear that she’s not sure that that use of the account was fitting, and that I “called her out” after she tweeted that she didn’t “love seeing the White House hanging out on Twitter gabbing about the Grammys.”

Given the flood of Grammy-related tweets about performances, costumes and the merits of the winners, I did decide that it was a good moment for me to observe that for a few hours last night, everyone was a critic. If Kanga felt called out by that reply, that wasn’t my intention.

When Kanga asked if anyone has just seen the tweet, I replied with a link to my report. When she asked about whether there had been other news from the White House, I pointed to the release of of new open source code from WhiteHouse.gov and budget information. She is correct that the White House had not tweeted in the 24 hours since the account shared NSA Donlon’s statement on Iran, Pete Souza’s photos or the president’s full statement on the Egyptian revolution.

On the other hand, I also saw no “gabbing or “hanging out” from the White House account, and pointed that out. The White House new media director was, clearly, like many other Americans, watching the awards ceremony, but he wasn’t using the official account to interact with Justin Bieber or Arcade Fire, despite the precedent set by Senator Reid’s interaction with Lady Gaga. Phillips straightforwardly shared a connection between an event at his institution and the history Spalding had just made, and included the full range of video available at YouTube.

This is not the first time that the White House account has been used to share tweets related to cultural events nor #hashtag them. The @WhiteHouse has been exploring the boundaries of government use of Twitter since it was created. Phillips is an active participant in new media culture and knows its conventions, after all.

The broader question of whether the White House should be a part of pop culture or contribute to it could probably be tabled in 2011, given that presidents and staff have been participating in sports or entertainment for decades through speeches, first pitches, interviews or broadcasts.

The advent of social media platforms, however, has catalyzed new questions about propriety of official accounts. Should State Department officials tweet about anything but foreign policy? Should a mayor tweet about a particular restaurant and not another? Should the Press Secretary tweet a recommendation for a bike shop on his official account? Specific use cases are easier to parse than more generalized rules. If an official wouldn’t endorse a business from the rostrum of the briefing room, tweeting about it probably won’t sit well with some observers. More generally, adding a sense of the humans behind government social media accounts has been a consistent element of advice from analysts, consultants and related experts.

Reasonable people can and will differ on the propriety of the White House tweeting about topics that diverge from the serious issues of the day, whether it’s the business of government, foreign policy or the President’s views. It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t so long ago where observers questioned whether the White House should tweet at all. Legislators and elected officials are, after all, still questioning whether using Twitter at all has utility in 2011.

Another way to look at the White House use of Twitter might not be to question a tweet linking to video of a performance at a Poetry Jam but to question the absence of more tweets that direct attention to the work of citizens, government workers or military outside of such fora.

For instance, the White House has an opportunity to put the spotlight on fast moving events in the Middle East by amplifying the messages of State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, raise up the voices of those who serve or respond to the questions of the electorate. Ultimately, the success or failure of government leveraging a platform like Twitter will likely be judged by its relevance to accomplishing the mission of the institutions using it. In 2011, there’s still plenty of undiscovered landscapes ahead.

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I see this as the double-edge sword. Most experts say government agencies need to be human, speak with a real voice, as a personality. But when they do, like above, often get in trouble – where’s the real news?

No easy answer. Personally I love it that they are sharing and acting human

Adriel Hampton

Nice report! I like that the White House would use Twitter for this purpose, but I do think that account has been conspicuously absent at times. “More tweets that direct attention to the work of citizens, government workers or military outside of such fora” – hear, hear.

Stephen Peteritas

Double edged sword is right. Unlike Steve I’d error on the other side. I mean yes in an ideal world gov’t is amazing all the people love it and we all hug and laugh about whatever dumb thing Kayne West just did BUT that’s not going to happen. More so than being human people’s biggest gripe with the gov’t is that it’s not doing enough or working hard enough and tweets about pop culture aren’t doing anything to debunk that.

I’m not saying gov’t shouldn’t be allowed to be human but at this juncture it’s probably better than they don’t broadcast that part as much as it sucks not to.

Melanie Friebel

Good question and no easy answer. I like the idea of smaller or local governments/organizations tweeting attention to the work of citizens, etc., but on the level of @WhiteHouse, I’m not sure. I do agree that he was simply making a notation, not endorsing or calling to action.

I think we’ll see a lot of questioning, debating, debacles and determining in the days to come regarding the use of social media in government and the work place. I for one, am excited to be part of watching it/making it evolve!

Mark Hammer

Meh. We had the same thing in Canada, with cabinet ministers tweeting about Arcade Fire winning.

Here’s a shocker: government staff born after 1970 using Twitter. Who would have thought, eh?

At one level, I suppose I should be encouraged by political staff having some sense of popular culture. At another level, I harken back to Bush Sr.’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” during an election campaign. Sometimes you lik to think that maybe the White House stays out of pop culture and doesn’t try quite so hard to “look hip and groovy for the kids”.

Maybe I’ll change my tune when I hear that the Secretary of Labour or the Interior has Motorhead CDs in their car or works out to P-Funk.

As for Esperanza, kudos for a jazz musician finally taking the category. But condolences for being given el beso del muerte and joining the ranks of Taste of Honey, Starland Vocal Band, Debbie Boone, Jodi Watley, and Milli Vanilli.

Jeremy Bertrand

I loved that they did this. Sharing an amazing performance with everyone by that artist. I don’t think it endorses at all. I had never heard of her and was thrilled to be able to watch a performance as wonderful as the one she put on in the White House. It’s tricky finding balance for a government account to be both human and governmental, but I felt this was a brilliant, timely and relevant move on their part.

Tim Pratt

I love it! Why are artists invited to perform at the White House? Because art is part of our culture and heritage. I glad they are reminding us that we value the contribution artists make.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Any organization that has an affiliation to a performer and wants to share that connection publicly should feel free to do so. Of course, the White House probably should decide if they are going to make this a regular aspect of their tweeting vs. a random event. Perhaps the reason why it stands out is because it was unusual for them…sounds like they may want to brush off the ol’ social media policy and see what’s part of their official messaging / marketing strategy.


I wanted Justin Beiber to win!!! waaah! Just kidding. Interesting post. It’s good to see the youth having something to say besides how shiny their rims are, or how much “ice” they are “rocking” …pardon the pun.

Candace Riddle

If you want to engage the public, there has to be an element of human behind the Tweets. Bravo for tweeting and linking to a performance at the White House. Most of us may have never known that such a performance had ever occured at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., without such a tweet. I enjoy knowing that those living behind the gates are still human.

Tarryn Reddy

Aren’t we always complaining the government is disconnected from its citizens? I think this is a great way to relate to people and at the same time give props to a great American artist.

Brian McCann

As it turns out, Esperanza Spalding will be performing in Frederick MD on March 4 at the Weinberg Theater, a restored 1920s movie house. As of last Friday, before the Grammy Awards, there were still good seats available. Already have my tickets.