Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

How Social Are Obama's Social Media Initiatives, Really?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Articles such as The Los Angeles Times’ Obama, the first social media president are popping up in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere. The theme is that Obama’s successful use of the web and “social technologies” in his campaign portends a new, more open, and transformative approach to government and public sector transparency.

As hopeful as I am about the new Administration’s use of technology to improve communications and government transparency, I’m going to take a “wait and see” attitude about how “transformative” web based social media are really going to be. Elsewhere I’ve outlined some of my concerns about the five challenges facing widespread Federal government adoption of “web 2.0” approaches elsewhere. Here I just wanted to mention one: not all uses of social media are social, nor are they collaborative.

A case in point is President-elect Obama’s YouTube address over the weekend. Yes, YouTube can be a “social medium. Yes, putting a video out on YouTube or other similar platforms can significantly increase access to a message. Yes, some postings can “go viral” as network effects take hold and users republish and redistribute the original files, comments, and links to these files.

But in other instances, such postings can just be another example of the one-way distribution of information, with no attempt made to incorporate feedback or networking opportunities into the discussion. We saw this repeatedly in the recent presidential campaign as both sides published and republished TV commercials on the web. These were not sincere efforts at collaboration, these were basically spot advertisements intended to drum ideas home. In that sense the web based delivery of campaign commercials was just another distribution channel. Political ads are political ads, whatever the medium. Some people I know prefer to avoid them altogether.

In some cases, such uses of media such as YouTube are basically intended as “end runs” around  traditional media. Dick Cheney sitting down for a radio interview with Rush Limbaugh to bypass the “liberal mainstream media” to speak directly to dittoheads is a case in point. How does an Obama YouTube-distributed address differ functionally from this if mechanisms aren’t also in place to capture and channel the thinking and actions of the electorate? Doing this efficiently will, indeed, be a challenge.

I’m not arguing against the next administration’s use of social media. I hope they do. Members of my family and I all volunteered at various times to elect the next president and I’m looking forward to the changes he has proposed.

But here’s hoping social media, social networking, and web based communications aren’t used as just more ways to “get the message out.”

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dr. McDonald is an independent management consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. His email address is and his Twitter ID is @ddmcd.


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