Obama opens up online

1

by Kyle W. Brown

In the early evening of Wednesday, the
United States President Barack Obama got a chance to answer questions directly
from voters (Democrats, Republicans, and undecideds alike). However, this
wasn’t your basic open forum at a debate, town hall, or rally. No, President
Obama sat down at a laptop in a room in Charlottesville, Virginia, and answered
questions from anonymous askers on the online social news site, reddit.

Fresh off the heels of a rally at the host
city of the University of Virginia where Obama appealed to the youth vote, he
further showed his dedication to the youth vote with his reddit Q&A,
colloquially known as an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on the site.

  For those unfamiliar with the site
reddit.com, it’s difficult to explain. The site is an open-source social news
site, where users have the ability to post photos, links (to newspaper
articles, websites, etc.), or start discussions in one of thousands of “sub-reddits”.
Other users then have the opportunity to comment on the original post. The
sub-reddits each have a different focus (the list is endless, ranging in
everything from US politics, to funny images, to city-specific reddits like
Ottawa, to hobbies and jobs), with one dedicated specifically to these AMA’s.

The AMA’s have quickly become a kind-of
hidden secret for politicians, as Obama is not the first to face the reddit
hive. Previously, the likes of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul,
Colorado representative Jared Polis, and others have taken to the web to answer
questions.


When Obama went up, the site went crazy
with excitement (even leading to the site occasionally crashing.) The AMA has
received over 19,000 comments at the time of writing, and that number will
likely only grow as those from other parts of the world continue to log on and
see.

  And while Obama dedicated 30 minutes out of
his busy campaign trail to “be real” with the reddit community, the question of
its success is hard to determine.

For Obama, the results have to be seen as
positive. reddit’s demographics state that the average US redditor is a liberal
male, between 25-34 with college education, who lives in the lowest income
bracket. To begin with, the odds are already in his favour, as can be seen by a
quick trip to the “Politics” sub-reddit, which has a heavy Democratic slant and
dedicates much space to the bashing of Republican candidates Mitt Romney and
Paul Ryan.

More, though, it gives Obama the perception
of being a “real guy,” while in fact he is answering questions that he gets to
pick. The format of reddit is just a page filled with comments and questions,
of which Obama could filter through and pick which questions he wanted to
respond to. By the end of the AMA, Obama had answered ten questions ranging
from inquiring to his favourite basketball player and asking for the White
House beer’s recipe to questions regarding platform policy on space programs
and supporting small businesses.

However, he got to pick these questions out
of what is probably thousands. As opposed to a debate or town hall where a
politician must face whatever question the person with the microphone asks, he
was allowed to sift through and pick the ones that he either thought he could
answer easily, or picked answers that he believed would be of most interest to
the reddit audience, and therefore build up support (this is especially true in
a question that focused on policies of Internet freedom, as well as the beer
recipe). Meanwhile, the president skipped questions regarding marijuana
legalization, lobbyist-congress relationships, and Guantanamo Bay.

Furthermore, there are no rules concerning
the act of doing an AMA. There is no requirement for length or detail in an
answer, no regulations stating follow-up questions should be answered, and no
rules stating the highest voted questions must be considered. Furthermore, with
thousands of questions, there’s no real penalty for avoiding a question as the
general consensus tends to be that the person doing the AMA either ran out of
time or didn’t see the question buried among all of the others.

Meanwhile, on the other side, reddit will
most likely chalk this up as a win. But should they?

  Though the technology allows for users to
pressure politicians to answer tough questions, the flaws stated above make
that an unrealistic fantasy. Of the ten answers Obama gave, not one of them
appeared to be more candid or off-the-cuff than what someone would expect a
politician to give to a traditional media outlet. He answered everything the
same way he would if he was being asked the questions by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes or Barbara Walters on The View.

They were carefully scripted, as all
answers from politicians are, but simply applied the casual and carefree tone that
is normal for an anonymous social news site like reddit, giving the impression
that it was a more important political step than it really was.

So while reddit continues to bathe in its
success of landing such a prominent figure to undertake the task of answering
an AMA, users should consider who the real beneficiary was: the politician who just had a captive
audience listen to his hand-picked answers, or the tens of thousands of users
who just got answers that they wouldn’t read should they appear as quotes in
the New York Times or their local
news station.

  It’s all still politics, just in a new
format.

Added another paragraph outlining a bit more about growing up here. Wanted to try and keep it concise, though, and couldn't think of anything family-related on the same stream of thought.

Kyle Brown is a graduate student at McMaster University studying the use of new media's role in social and political progress, activism, and action. In 2012, Kyle earned a bachelor's degree in Honours Journalism and Contemporary Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University. Throughout his final year at Laurier, Kyle was the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, The Sputnik. He worked as the sports editor for the two years previous. Aside from his interest in new media, Kyle's journalism interests lay primarily in sports and culture writing. 

Growing up and playing sports in Almonte, Kyle had always had the desire to  become a professional sports writer. His journalism interests came to fruition when he was a student at Almonte & District High School, where in grade eleven he was approached and asked to begin writing a column focused on the high school's upcoming events and activities for the Almonte Gazette.