Obama's Reddit Q&A: Smart Tactic, but Empty of Actual Content

Campaign Stole a Bit of Social-Media Momentum From GOP, but Played It Safe

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Image provided by Reddit to verify Barack Obama was participating.
Image provided by Reddit to verify Barack Obama was participating.
Tampa, Fla. -- President Barack Obama took his long-running embrace of social media one step further Wednesday when he turned out for an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, the often unruly bulletin board that describes itself as the "front page of the internet."

In the half-hour chat, the president weighed in on space exploration, internet freedom, work-life balance, the surge, college debt, and Michael Jordan. And he ignored a lot of interesting questions from Redditors about the war on drugs and the lack of prosecution following the 2008 -? financial crisis. He didn't offer any news or particularly deep insights, but he did manage to set the internet aflame during a particularly tactical point: the Republican National Convention.

By any measure, it was a watershed moment for Reddit, whose previous claim to cultural relevance was its role in shutting down SOPA. For President Obama, whose mastery of social media propelled him to the White House in 2008, it's an interesting new chapter. A lot of people will tell you that should earn points for President Obama. It shouldn't.

Dropping into Reddit isn't like firing up any other social-media platform. This isn't starting a Pinterest page. The community demands a lot of anyone who participates -- in particular authenticity and honesty. These are things that don't come easy for many of the celebrities who stop by . Just ask Woody Harrelson.

While President Obama's won plenty of plaudits for playing along, you'd have to be seriously in the bag for Obama to conclude that he used the forum the way it's designed to be used. His answers were safe and polished and might as well have been written by one of his communications team.

Either he picked pointlessly vague questions:

QUESTION: We know how Republicans feel about protecting Internet Freedom. Is Internet Freedom an issue you'd push to add to the Democratic Party's 2012 platform?

OBAMA: Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the Internet remains the open forum for everybody -- from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although there will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won't stray from that principle -- and it will be reflected in the platform.

Or non-controversial ones:

QUESTION: 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.

Or trivial ones:

QUESTION: Who's your favourite [sic] Basketball player?

OBAMA: Jordan -- I'm a Bulls guy.

Or questions that teed up an easy political response:

QUESTION: What was the most difficult decision that you had to make during this term?

OBAMA: The decision to surge our forces in afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you. The decision did help us blunt the taliban's momentum, and is allowing us to transition to afghan lead -- so we will have recovered that surge at the end of this month, and will end the war at the end of 2014. But knowing of the heroes that have fallen is something you never forget.

Even better, read this full transcript of the Q&A, with all of the unanswered questions and the Reddit excitement stripped out and ask yourself whether the interview is particularly revealing, whether it got to any truth or detail that he wouldn't have got to through an interview with Matt Lauer or Katie Couric or some other old-media icon.

Sure, the errant lower-case letters are nice and evoke the image of a harried POTUS hurriedly typing away in the brave new world of the raw web, but c'mon. It would be a stretch to interpret any of this as particularly transparent, revealing or authentic. It's merely him -- or his smart communications team -- using Reddit as another channel, albeit a vital, social one, through which a president adept at digital marketing can deliver his messages.

The reality is that this is not authenticity. It's the opposite. It's staying on message or, rather, making the medium your message.

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