North Wind And Sun

YouChange – Obama Uses New Media to Address a New Generation

Back in 1933, as the United States struggled through the trials of the Great Depression, then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt did what any great orator in his position would do: he spoke. Via a series of 31 “fireside chats,” Roosevelt addressed the struggling U.S. in a language that many were unused to hearing from politicians. He spoke plainly, explaining complex economic issues in terms that the average American could understand, and implored listeners to get involved by supporting his agendas. By utilizing the ubiquitous medium of radio, Roosevelt was able to convince Americans that they had both a vested interest in the economy and a formidable ability to change it.

Let’s take that situation and tweak it slightly. Replace 1933 with 2008, FDR with Barack Obama and the radio with the Internet, and you have what some have affectionately dubbed Obama’s “firewire chats.” (A bit of an explanation: Firewire in this case refers to the high-speed data transfer interface developed by Apple. Check the left side of your Macbook.) In the first of these chats, which hit YouTube last Friday, the President-elect spoke about the current state of the financial crisis. It was simple, concise and straightforward. As of Sunday evening, the video drew 668,516 views, making it the most-viewed clip of the day. Obama’s Change.gov channel has likewise experienced great success, coming in as the 26th most viewed channel on Youtube.com last week.

According to Obama’s aides, the goal of putting the weekly addresses on YouTube is both to put a face on government and to increase governmental transparency  –  two sorely needed qualities in any presidential administration. Moreover, by putting the videos on YouTube and Change.gov, the Obama administration’s transition website, the Obama crew hopes to keep the legions of online supporters and contributors dedicated to his cause.

Some have been skeptical, however. Slate’s John Dickerson is hesitant to view the Obama videos as anything revolutionary or innovative. “Finding new ways to sell your message,” he writes in a Nov. 14 article, “is not the same as making yourself more transparent. In fact, obscuring the message with shiny distractions may actually undermine the cause of transparency.”

While it is certainly true that the firewire chats do not automatically cultivate transparency, it is worth noting that Obama’s utilization of YouTube is really just a continuation of the same method that helped him get elected in the first place. By taking his grassroots style of organization to the realm of the Internet, Obama was able to vastly increase the number of people willing to contribute and campaign for his election. This massive network of over 10 million supporters – cultivated by Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes – was the lifeblood of the Obama campaign. Obama’s firewire chats are evidence that they are the very people that Obama will turn to during his administration.

This, of course, speaks to the power of the Internet. Viewed solely as a form of empowerment, the Internet becomes an unparalleled tool, affording groups and individuals abilities previously unknown to them. One of the major strengths of using YouTube is that it allows Obama to work around traditional media and speak directly to those interested in what he has to say. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, however. While recent lapses in media ethics might make one hesitate to trust certain media outlets, one should be equally worried at the prospect of Obama having uncontested access to viewers. He has been a darling for much of the media and the world, but he still remains a politician, as prone to flicks of the tongue as any.

Even if we affix a golden halo atop the President-elect’s crown, a slight scroll down the page of the first video reveals a curious omission –  comments. While YouTube is certainly the last place one goes for any semblance of a productive conversation, the fact that the Obama crew has disabled both commenting and rating on the President-elect’s first address speaks very clearly to the limitations of his recent efforts. While it is very simple to upload and present videos, maintaining and sifting through commentary – ” that is, “discussion” –  is far less so. Perhaps the next step in Obama’s online endeavors would be figuring out just that. I call it “change we can comment on.”

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