Monday evening, President Obama participated in a "hangout" on Google+, video conferencing with five groups of people chosen by Google, answering questions from them live and from others who submitted them earlier on YouTube. As they did when Obama first started broadcasting his presidential addresses on YouTube in 2009, people wondered Monday whether Obama has found in social media his "fireside chat" -- a new medium through which he, like President Roosevelt with the radio, can uniquely connect with citizens. Scanning reviews of the forum Tuesday, it appears that Obama did seize on a medium that captivates like FDR's did -- "It is utterly fascinating," tweeted The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates as he watched -- but there are some important differences that will probably keep "hangouts" from becoming the same kind of cultural touchstone.
It was an oddly intimate interaction FDR's chats were so successful because through radio, his voice could enter U.S. living rooms. His language, often beginning with, "Good evening, friends," played up the sense of closeness with the listener. "Hangouts" it seems, can only add to that intimacy. Participants were pre-selected and the whole event was almost certainly orchestrated to make everyone involved look good, but the format of a "hangout" nevertheless gave it an oddly intimate, and thus watchable, feel. Reviewing it, Jon Mitchell at ReadWriteWeb.com writes:
The Hangout dynamics did offer some back-and-forth between participants and the president. The action didn't feel scripted. On the contrary, it felt like people talking over each other, just like a video chat usually does, except there was a moderator to occasionally interrupt and move things along.
People focused especially on Obama's interaction with one woman who didn't seem satisfied with his first answer on why her engineer husband can't find a job. Obama offered to look at the husband's resume. Writes Alexander Howard, "One could dismiss it as pandering -- or celebrate it as a citizen cutting through the morass of bureaucracy to tell the nation's chief executive that the system wasn't working as he said it should."
In another interaction, a woman asked if her kids could come on screen to meet the president (virtually of course.) Writes Cory Bergman at LostRemote.com, "It was the kind of unscripted social media moment that warms the hearts of campaign managers everywhere. And you won’t get that in a presidential press conference."
Obama does well in these settings Just as FDR skillfully used the radio in a way other politicians hadn't, reviewers seemed to think that Obama is particularly suited to the dynamics of social media. CBS wrote that Obama "turned on the charm." Writes Bergman, "Obama was in his element, navigating the conversations with ease ... And that may explain why he does so many social events. Just as TV changed campaigns and candidates, social media is doing it all over again. Amie Parnes at The Hill noted that Obama seems to like these social media forums because they allow him to avoid traditional media interviews.
And yet ... And yet, Obama may have found a forum in which he performs well and seems to connect with those watching, but he probably hasn't seized on one that is so captivating that it'll attract the kind of attendance FDR got. That's for the very same reason YouTube and Google+ are successful. People aren't forced to pick between three YouTube networks. Audiences fragment themselves between millions of choices, and probably will continue to do so. Viewership was in the thousands, reports CBS, which is impressive for a presidential town hall at 5:30 p.m. on a Monday, but nothing like the overwhelming influence FDR's chats had on the public discourse through the depression and the war. So we expect the White House will probably keep doing these, but we don't know that entire books will be written about them. (At least not many.) Still, Obama knows how to get those viewer ratings up. "In some future Google+, I may sing another tune," he said near the end of this one.