Sociopolitical Media: How the White House Creates Online Buzz

PHOTO: President Barack Obama Tweets during an Twitter town hall meeting at the White House.

Getty/Brendan Smialowski

Last week, the White House announced a new audio series, "Being Biden," that offers listeners a peek behind photos of Vice President Joe Biden. Through the audio series, the Vice President will "tell the story behind the story. Like where he was when the image was snapped, why it matters to him, and how the experience fits into the broader narrative of this Administration." He will also share links to each episode via the @VP Twitter account.

But the series is more than just a pretty damn awesome opportunity to see Biden, well, being Biden. It's also another example of the White House's commitment to creating original, branded, extremely shareable content that reveals a more personal, albeit carefully curated, view of the Obama administration.

It's always been clear that Obama's social-media team "gets" the Internet. But as it turns out, it also really understands online popular culture in a way that no other political machine has before it. That may be why they're the first administration, and the first political team, to truly speak the language of the web and successfully use it to shape their image.

Take, for example, this year's announcement of the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. The President's team had a little help from "Kid President" -- a (very cute) (and presidential) 9-year-old named Robby who dispenses advice, gives lessons on proper pronunciation, and conducts interviews with arguably famous people. Robby announced this year's Easter Egg Roll after a call (via tin can, naturally) from President Obama himself.

The White House's decision to align itself with a beloved video star -- someone whose fame is predicated not only on spreading a fun, positive message, but on doing so via people's tendency and willingness to share videos online -- was an inspired one, and one that not only connected the President and his White House directly to American families who watch and enjoy Kid President's videos, but also to the Zeitgeist. The President (or, at any rate, those who oversee his outreach efforts) knows who Kid President is. That's big.

The Obama administration has also carved a place of itself on platforms like Instagram (inspiring the site to issue a personal welcome for the President), Twitter (where the President and First Lady will sometimes Tweet for themselves, signing off with their initials), and Reddit. But what sets this President apart from other politicians who have also cultivated a presence on social media (See: Mitt Romney's son's images of the former presidential hopeful eating a fluffernutter cupcake on his birthday, party hat askew), is that his team don't simply post photos or publish Tweets. They create content. They allow those images and 140 characters' worth of information to become a part of something bigger, be it tapping into a particular mood or presenting online followers with a call to action.

Take, for example, the photo Obama Tweeted after winning his bid for reelection. It wasn't just a "Hey, we did it!" surrounded by patriotic clip art. The image showed President Obama and his wife embracing, along with the caption "Four more years." It revealed a more personal, intimate side to his win and, for his supporters, it provided a symbol of optimism and victory that could be shared with a simple click. That's not just an image: It's a statement. Not to mention the most re-Tweeted Tweet of all time. And, as Tumblr's Storyboard explains, that image "wasn't chosen by the president's press secretary, or even a senior-level operative, but by 31-year-old Laura Olin, a social media strategist who'd been up since 4am."

As for the President's official site, BarackObama.com? It's run by none other than Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's original founders, and has been likened to a social network itself.

In addition, the President not only participated in a Reddit AMA session, he also exhibited an innate knowledge of the internet and its thriving, meme-laden culture by sharing that his experience was, in fact, "NOT BAD." For those unfamiliar, that means a U.S. President acknowledged a "rage face" meme based on one of his most famous facial expressions.

These attempts to reach out to supporters and voters are setting a precedent in terms of the level of intimacy and access afforded by social media, not to mention setting the bar in terms of the commander-in-chief's awareness of and relationship to online culture. Certainly, previous presidents have made successful strides at communicating directly with citizens. Take FDR's "fireside chats," which marked the first time a U.S. president used the media resources available to him to speak directly and informally to the American people. And there's John F. Kennedy's TV presence which, in contrast to Nixon's, helped cement the importance of image when it comes not to politics and policy, but a leader's place in pop culture. The Obama administration has built on this by tuning into the lesser-known, more niche media outlets available to them (Reddit, for instance, has its own tight-knit community of regulars, and the Internet in general has a language, pace and attitude all its own that can be more difficult to grasp and master than, say, a simple chat via radio).

But as fascinating as all that is, there is still a balancing act that must be played with politics, policy and pop culture, and it's one that the Obama administration hasn't always gotten right.

It ultimately comes down to a matter of personal opinion on what is appropriate for a given U.S. president The Obamas have certainly garnered a degree of criticism, both from right-wing media outlets and otherwise, for their visits to programs like The View, The Daily Show, The Late Show, The Tonight Show, Late Night, and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Perhaps the most confusing melding of politics and pop culture was the First Lady's surprise appearance at the Oscars, where -- flanked by members of the U.S. military -- she announced Argo as the year's Best Picture.

With each successive presidency, this balance of politics, pop culture and the web will continue to be defined, refined and then re-defined, particularly given that the president and his (or, someday, her) administration undoubtedly and not always intentionally leave their own mark on popular culture. Comedians and late-night hosts will always turn to the White House for material, films and TV series will continue to be inspired by the drama and pathos of White House politics and Reddit users will forever create image macros based on the funny, terrible, shocking, touching or clueless things that presidents do and say.

The trick likely lies in being familiar enough with the language of popular culture--particularly with the unique jargon, references, in-jokes and narratives that abound online--to not only be conversant, but to effectively guide the conversation. And by creating engaging, relevant and shareable content online, the Obama administration has been able to do just that.

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