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The Obama Roadblock: Why He's Sagging Online

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, September 21 2009

If you chart the daily viewership of Barack Obama's official channel on YouTube, you might conclude that being President of the United States is the kiss of death for online enthusiasm. Here's TubeMogul's full chart from January 20 to present, which you have to scroll through using the slider at the bottom to get the full picture.

TubeMogul breaks down all the sources of these daily totals, and the internal numbers show something even worse for Obama's YouTube channel: A lot of his daily numbers are coming from people viewing old videos, not the newer material his team has been posting to engage the public in current issues. For example, yesterday September 20 his channel got almost 42,000 views. But more than half those views--22,400--came from 40 of his all-time best videos (call them the oldies but goodies). By contrast, his September 10 speech before a joint session of Congress on health reform only got 4,123 views yesterday. Here's the track for that video alone:

Since becoming President, the most views Obama has gotten on YouTube has been for his most unscripted moment in the White House: his swatting of a large fly during a CNBC interview three months ago. "I got the sucker," he grins to the cameras. Versions of the clip have amassed more than 4 million views. And for good reason: it's funny, and it reveals a side of Obama--a natty Ninja flyswatter--that people can both laugh at and identify with.

There's a lesson buried in these statistics, especially on the day after Obama blanketed the Sunday morning TV chat shows (appearing on a record five in all). The internet is a great place for certain kinds of political content, and not for others. Scripted speeches and planned soundbites don't get forwarded around very much online. We are bombarded with canned marketing messages all day long as it is; what does spread online are the moments that provide what viewers think is a more authentic view or revealing view of a politician or issue.

These need not be 10-second soundbites, either, because the internet, unlike broadcast media, has no time limits. It is an abundant, not scarce, medium. A "soundblast" like Obama's 37-minute speech on race, which viewers searched out online because they had heard it was unusually thoughtful for a politician, has been viewed more than 6.1 million times on YouTube.

As President, Obama could be using the internet medium in innovative ways, but so far, whatever understanding of online media the Obama team once demonstrated during the presidential campaign appears to have been subsumed by more cautious and traditional media thinking now. His strategists' comments about yesterday's TV blitz shows how much they've retreated into a purely "broadcast" mentality. From the New York Times:

“The idea of overexposure is based on an old-world view of the media,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House’s deputy communications director. Because the media are now so fragmented, Mr. Pfeiffer said, “you would have to do all the Sunday shows, a lot of network news shows and late-night shows” to reach the number of viewers a president could address with one network interview 20 years ago.

In other words, you’d have to be on TV a lot, like Barack Obama.

“We’re essentially roadblocking the time by appearing on each station,” David Axelrod, senior adviser to the president, said of Sunday’s schedule.

These comments reveal top White House strategists thinking of media purely in terms of reach, or eyeballs imprinted. But did anything the President said yesterday on those five programs leave an impression? If so, it would be flying around the internet today. And nothing is. Which I think was deliberate. In terms of media we choose to watch and recommend to our friends--as opposed to media chosen for us--the Obama roadblock was in front of a dead end.

The best we have is a shortclip of Obama decrying "the 24-hour news cycle, and cable television and blogs and all this...they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides, they can't get enough of conflict. It's catnip to the media right now." That's gotten about 16,000 views since yesterday morning.

And it's revealing for what this clips says (or rather repeats, for those of us who have been paying attention) about Obama's personal view of online media. Blogs are lumped in with cable television and the dreaded 24-hour news cycle. The notion of networked media, of engaging the "people who used to be called the audience," seems glaringly absent from his imagination. Once upon a time, candidate Obama said:

We need to connect citizens with each other to engage them more fully and directly in solving the problems that face us. We must use all available technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.

But instead of inventing a new kind of online conversation to engage the public and "change the way business is conducted in Washington," Obama is just falling back on older, less effective, methods. It's not too late for him to try something new, but given how things have been going, I'm not holding my breath.