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President Obama's Social Network

By Tom Watson on January 25, 2009One Comment

obamaThe accepted storyline on President Obama’s souped-up hot rod of a super-secure executive branch Blackberry runs like this: Presidents too often exist in a bubble, insulated from real people and the world outside the sturdy White House gates. There’s some truth to that, of course, but much of that isolation has tended to be self-inflicted rather than mandated by statute.

While it will undoubtedly help him keep his connection with non-governmental friends and ideas, the Obama Blackberry also has another important function that I’m pretty sure our new President is well aware of: it’s an important symbol of access and permission.

Yes, I know the new PDA will be limited to email addresses of those pre-cleared by the Secret Service – and that President Obama’s emails will legally fall under Federal record-keeping regulations. Those email conversations aren’t likely to have any references to predator drone attacks inside Pakistan or Congressional strategies around the stimulus bill. They will be limited.

But that misses the point. The President will still be carrying a portable web browser where ever he goes. And while he might only use it to check Chisox boxscores, the potential exists for a more direct link to the daily swirl of information outside of his daily briefing books.

In other words, the President just might be reading your blog. That possibility, remote as it is, opens a door that hasn’t – frankly – been open since the dawn of the commercial Internet. President Clinton did much to encourage the development of the vast public network, but he wasn’t an Internet guy – he used the telephone and endless face-to-face contact to advance his agenda. President Bush often seemed to relish his out-of-touch reputation – clearly, not an Internet President either.

Obama’s publicly-celebrated Internet use, given his popularity at present, is a powerful cultural symbol – one backed up by his campaign’s historic success online. In my mind, there are two important by-products: an unstated permission for the Federal branch agencies to step up their use of the Internet to open government more fully to the people; and a tacit acceptance of the kind of public dissent and discussion that the Internet nourishes.

That President Obama favors a sharp change in public disclosure was signaled the day after his Inauguration in two memos loosening up Federal responses under the Freedom of Information Act and encouraging agencies to speed the flow of public information. As Micah Sifry wrote, “This is a 180-degree turn from the policies of the Bush Administration.” This section, in particular, seems like one likely to come only from a Blackberry-wielding President:

Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

While you expect any administration to try and control its message and promote an all-hands-on-deck cooperation throughout the agencies, you don’t necessarily expect a President to encourage too much discussion his program (campaign promises aside). Yet, Obama’s Blackberry may also signal an acceptance of the dissent – even in his own party – that challenges any complex political agenda. During the campaign, the MyBo site allowed groups to organize opposition to Obama policy positions on the candidate’s own servers. The transition encouraged some light, participatory issues activism online. The new White House site seems pretty buttoned up and Presidential, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the administration won’t encourage dissent and discussion. Much of the action there may take place at the agency sites, where web developers are newly-empowered to experiment and solicit public participation.

But any President with a Blackberry will encounter policy disagreements directly, outside of the news clippings and the congressional liaison staff. This is a good thing. So when you spot that new, secure Blackberry on President Obama’s hip, don’t look at it as just a personal tool for the President to stay in touch – look at it as a symbol that this President just might be in touch.

And then say what you’ve gotta say.

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One Comment »

  • janflora says:

    It certainly will be nice to have a leader who is informed and aware of the rest of the world around him. Let’s just hope he doesn’t get lost in the blogosphere, surfing endlessly and unproductively like some of us do ;)

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