September 4, 2012

The Message is the Medium: Obama’s AMA changes the game, revitalizing the campaign for young people

President Obama responds t o question on Reddit, the self-described front page of the internet.

By Lee Cole–

“Dude, get on Reddit NOW, Barack Obama is doing an AMA.” If you’ve never heard of Reddit, this statement won’t mean much to you, but it’s the text I received around 4:30 pm, last Wednesday. Marking a watershed moment in campaign history, President Obama took to the self-described front page of the internet, Reddit, and invited users to “ask me anything.” The Louisville Cardinal was the first news outlet in Louisville to cover the story, breaking the news before The Courier Journal, thanks in part to that text. We were breaking the story early by national standards, in step with the likes of The Atlantic and the Washington Post. More than anything else, this should be a testament to the power of the Internet and those of us, mostly students and twenty-somethings, who were born into the digital era.

This article was supposed to be about President Obama’s skillful avoidance of petitions on his website, most involving issues brought to the fore by college age Americans who know their way around the Internet better than most. As if to preemptively respond to my criticism, Obama’s AMA came like a flash of lightning, inundating Reddit with visitors to the point that the site crashed. Lightning is perhaps the best metaphor because at present, the news moves, quite literally, at the speed of light. For most of the last century, you could say that the news moved at the speed of ink; nothing could be released faster than the presses could print it. Only word of mouth was speedier. But now, in the age of texting, social media and 24-hour news networks, it’s faster to click the mouse or tap the send button on your touch screen than it is to expend the effort to vibrate your vocal cords.

Maybe the Courier Journal and other print media didn’t break the story because the people who still read newspapers are old. I don’t mean this as a joke or to be mean – it’s simply the fact of the matter. Most people over 40 would have no idea what Reddit is, and even if you told them, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. As you read this story, you can be sure that what you’re holding in your hands (unless it’s an electronic tablet) is a relic — an item of archeological significance to be sure, but an entity which should’ve been pronounced dead about five years ago. Instead, the newspaper ekes its way onward, preserved by embalming fluids, and we are privy to its prolonged, ugly death rattle.

There has been a valiant effort to preserve the newspaper. Organizations, like the New York Times, have tried to reallocate their resources and refocus on social media and online stories. The paradigm shift has resulted in a lot of middle aged veteran journalists deciding reluctantly to see what the kids are up to. They do their best to cover the vast new territory the web has created, but frankly, they don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Furthermore, they consistently underestimate and disdain the Gen Y’ers, who use the internet as a global tool for affecting policy.

This is the same generation that gets news from the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, not, as many baby boomers and older generations might suggest, because they’re lazy, but because Stewart and Colbert are just about the only people on television who tell it like it is anymore. The comedy aspect shouldn’t take away from their importance; the rest of the networks deserve to be made fun of. Just watching Wolf Blitzer fumble over giant touch screens and holograms is comical in its own right, without Stewart’s commentary. Furthermore, they deserve to be made fun of, viciously, because they are absurdly self-important.

The condescending tone is perhaps best represented by Bill O’Reilly when he referred to Stewart’s audience as “stoned slackers.” He’s not the only one, however, to take this kind of stance. Outside of Fox News, the comments usually boil down to something like “Oh isn’t it cute what the kids are doing, they’ve got their own little blogs and sites, and they think they’re reporting the news!” But while ink besmeared, bedraggled reporters scurry about in sweaty, cramped newsrooms, some kid in high school is scanning Twitter and breaking the next big, global story, all from the comfort of his living room.

Pundits fail to understand the real power of the Internet in the hands of young people. Egypt should be the foremost example, social media playing a key role there in mobilizing the revolution. The same potential exists in America however. Take the group Anonymous, for instance; variously called a terrorist group and internet vigilantes, the hacker collective that got its start on 4chan has infiltrated corporations, the Church of Scientology and even the Department of Justice and the FBI. With this kind of power, can we continue to ignore Redditors, 4chan-ers and 9gag-ers?

The issues that Redditors care about have to do mostly with Internet freedom, drug law reforms and science and technology funding. These are often considered secondary issues, especially in 2012 when the primary topics seem to be the economy and women’s health. Many of these issues were pushed to the forefront by Redditors in the form of petitions on the White House website. Obama largely ignored them, but chose to address some of the concerns in his AMA.

It’s not so much the content of what President Obama said that is so remarkable, but rather the medium. The real meaning of Marshal McLuhan’s oft misunderstood idiom “the medium is the message” is that human language and consciousness conform to whatever media they are exposed to. For most of the last 1,000 years, the printing press has enforced its own subtle tyranny over the English language, homogenizing dialects and stamping out anything that couldn’t be mass produced and printed by a machine. The idiosyncrasies of written manuscripts were phased out and our culture became print based.

The President referenced the “not bad” meme in his AMA, surely delighting rediitors.

McLuhan argues that phenomena as disparate as our modern notion of the “public” and our utilization and development of interchangeable parts as a technology, are all resultant from the print-based mindset. When the primary medium became television, the game changed once more. Children raised on television, he argued, were attuned to the world in a fundamentally different way than their parents. They had shorter attention spans and favored topographic layouts over simple, linear sections of text. What’s more, they didn’t have the patience for print media.

The Internet ups the ante, exaggerating and altering the effects of television in a profound way and adding into the mix the possibility for social interaction and connection. While television was a solitary experience, the internet gives us the opportunity to share information and coordinate with one another over vast distances. Those of us in the Internet age are also attuned to the world in a fundamentally different way. All of the barriers that previously divided us as citizens of this planet – geography, language, restrictive cultures and governments – have been dissolved.

Obama’s AMA was symbolic; in one fell swoop, he managed to deliver a message to television and print news outlets: I don’t need you to reach a wide audience. Newspapers will last another decade at most. Television networks will be coopted into some kind of TV/Web hybrid (a process that’s already under way). Print is dead, and by legitimating Reddit with his presence, Obama may have hammered the last nail in the coffin.

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