Obama was about to take part in a phenomenon called “Ask Me Anything,” a popular interview series on Reddit, a site with 50 million visitors a month. Redditors, as the site’s 2 million in-crowd-y regular users are known, did not take too kindly to frauds or dodges or interviewees who didn’t take Reddit seriously. AMA subjects ran the gamut from celebrities (Woody Harrelson, Seth MacFarlane, PSY) to regular professionals (a male stripper) to basically anything (a woman who was date raped). Community members were also encouraged to submit requests for people they wanted to question.
This was a day of political-campaign and Internet firsts, the sitting president subjecting himself to a free- for-all question-and-answer session with a hardcore community of pot-smoking freedom junkies who hated drones and loved porn and had a keen interest in politics and the future. It was chaotically democratic, and something of a gamble. Reddit had its baggage, issues, controversies, etc.; it wouldn’t generally pass a campaign or White House vetting. There’s some fucked up shit there, creep shots, racist rants, borderline teen porn, for example—and other good shit, too, for the most part, but the kind of material that could become fodder for critics looking to attack Obama.
More pressingly, though: if Obama didn’t get into it, if he didn’t engage, if he came across as a phony . . . Goff and the digital team had been kicking around the idea during a brainstorming session with Cutter, figuring out what the president was going to do during the week of the Republican convention.
Obama sat in front of his laptop, wearing a white collared shirt and a blue tie with white stripes.
“So what is this?” Obama asked.
Goff briefed him for less than a minute: an insanely popular social news site, crowd-sourced, no editorial, voice of the people.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“All right, you know how this works?”
“No. I have no idea.” Obama, at his computer, entered his greeting into Reddit.
"Hey everybody—this is barack. Just finished a great rally in Charlottesville, and am looking forward to your questions. At the top, I do want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with folks who are dealing with Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf, and to let them know that we are going to be coordinating with state and local officials to make sure that we give families everything they need to recover."
Obama was supposed to hand the computer over to Keenan, and Keenan would type Obama’s dictated responses in a shared Google doc. Then, Goff, on his own computer, would post the answers from the doc into the forum.
Scratch the plan.
Obama wanted to keep writing himself.
“I’ll just keep going,” he said.
Goff scanned the message board, selecting questions, putting them in a Google doc for Obama to look at, and choosing which ones to respond to.
Row 18, 19, 20—which one do you want to answer, Mr. President?
“I’ll take ’em all.”
Obama answered questions about small businesses, Internet freedom, the corrupting influence of money in politics, student loans, basketball.
Silent1mezzo: What’s the recipe for the White House’s beer?
Obama: It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.
The AMA broke the Internet. Swarmed Reddit servers had never supported so many views before; the site slowed down a bit. Obama’s connection didn’t falter but back in the Chicago office, the connection was patchy. The campaign couldn’t follow the whole thing.
The time limit had been set for 30 minutes, but Obama stayed for 15 minutes longer just because he was into it.
You know Obama will go down in history of a NUMBER of reasons, but not insignificant among them is that he is the FIRST President to understand, embrace, and ultimately tame the internet.
You have to remember that THIS was the first time that people, sitting in their homes or offices, were able to interact with the President of the United States in real time just like they did in chat rooms, twitter feeds, and text messages to their friends and family ever day.
Suddenly the President was not just some face on the television or distant politician thousands of miles away, he was right there with them. It was as if he had suddenly walked into their neighborhood bar and sat down to share a beer or ask about their day.
As an aggressive internet user myself, I have found myself repeatedly impressed by how President Obama has dealt with the new social media aspect of his job, and happen to know that his participation during that AMA on Reddit ABSOLUTELY earned him the lifelong support of a large number of young people, who I think will also probably support the Democratic party for the remainder of their lives.