Dear President Obama: When Will You Start Talking “To” Us, Not “At” Us?

White House Twitter Talk with Stowe BoydFor the past several years, I’ve put up with politicians getting used to technology and then finding themselves being “successful” in their political campaigns because they’ve “discovered” social media. I find it especially troubling when the only time people communicate with the public is when they actually need them (e.g. votes on election day or money to help run a campaign). So why am I so uppity over the fact that President Obama is simply talking at us rather than talking to us? It can’t be because of the fact he ran one of the most successful social campaigns in the nation’s history, can it? No…it’s what he’s doing now that has got me in a bit of a tiff.

The image to the left was taken from a post done by Steve Rubel that gives a pretty good picture of what I’m talking about. During the 2008 Presidential election cycle, social media was all the rage and we figured that this would help usher in a new form of governance. We all thought that the world of politics would be back in the control of the people, not the politicians. Did we genuinely think that we would have a say to what the politicians in Congress and also in the White House would really care what we had to say? Turns out that, in my opinion, it’s all one big fluke – politics as usual. And the biggest hoax that I think has happened in the nation’s history is all due to our belief that we could change the country.

Now I’m not here to argue against the merits of the Presidential election so please don’t start with the “McCain should have won. Obama is better” arguments. I’m talking about how social media was (and still is) all about conversation. When every politician enters the race for congressman, senator or even the presidency, these days they feel they must use the medium that everyone is using. Smart move. But when you start using the medium that everyone is using, you need to understand just how that medium is being used. In the case of President Obama, when he ran, there was all thsi promise that this guy would know how to use social media. He took advantage of YouTube, Twitter, had a blog, created a truly interactive social network on BarackObama.com, was on Facebook and all other major networks. We all knew it really wasn’t him talking to people like how you have with Lance Armstrong or Gary Vaynerchuk. These sites were all managed by a third-party – a ghost writer of sorts, if you will.

But if the purpose of why people are so inspired by you is because you knew how to reach them, why would you stop now? Ever since Barack Obama took office, millions of his followers on Twitter haven’t heard a single peep from him. I think that in the past, during the campaign when he needed all the public support he could get, he had his staff respond to his tweets in his place so it “looked” like there was dialogue taking place. Now, that’s not even there – and you would figure that it would be a little bit better since now Obama can now hire people to do that for him.

People need to understand that social media is NOT a method of simply pushing out information. It’s the means of garnering information so you can have an engaging conversation. For an industry that supposedly prides itself on doing things based on the “will of the people“, I’m finding social media as a mere tool to accomplish special interest goals. There’s no dialogue or any freely exchanged ideas or conversations happening here. If I think that Obama is responding to the tweets or at least looking at what people are saying to him, then I might have some more enticement to follow along what he’s writing, but as the example given by Steve Rubel shows, the White House is more interested in pushing out information.

Barack Obama TwitterstreamWe all know that Barack Obama is a passionate and magnetizing speaker and has that personality that people want to hear more from. It shows in his Twitter account where he has (to date) over 1.75 million followers – but only is following back nearly 750,000 (granted some are spammers that do nothing but clog up the interweb). But why is it that if you want to truly rise to the challenge and rally your followers, do you not converse more and at least respond accordingly to people who tweet you? Just look at Obama’s twitterstream and you’ll notice at least for the past few weeks, he’s done nothing but talk about things that he is doing. Not one single public reply to people because it seems to be all about him.

Being the guy who’s in charge and having people believe in you, the president should be more engaging and stop using tireless means to communicate with people to let them know what’s going on. Let’s take the Presidential Weekly Radio Address, for example. That’s probably one of the oldest sources of information that the president gives weekly to let the public know what’s going on. Obama did a great thing in sprucing it up and posting it on YouTube where now millions are finding it more engaging and interesting. But it’s always on a specific theme. So why doesn’t Obama have his team field the questions in the comments section or perhaps start with the conversation back on Twitter so that millions of other people will know how it affects them? With the economy in shambles, does the great social media team that ran Obama’s successful campaign think merely setting up website after website with some fluff information is enough to put people at ease? I want there to be someone I can chat with either on a message board or perhaps have a way to make it seem that I’m truly being consulted or that my opinion matters in this whole recovery process.

Barack Obama Email Asking For Support

Now I know that politicians are always raising funds, but shouldn’t there be more reason why you’re constantly blanketing me with emails? Just look at the email that I got from Mitch Stewart of the Obama campaign asking me for my help in “tackling health care reform”. I’m in favor of offering my services to help a cause…I think everyone should stand up for something they believe in, but with the Obama campaign, what’s going on here? Just because you’ve enticed millions and have a database of hundreds of millions of people beckoning to help you, doesn’t mean that you always send out information asking for donations or having them do stuff for you.

Dear President Obama: We are not your slaves or servants here for your beck and call. Talk TO us!

I find it disturbing that all this time I’m being asked for help and yet I don’t remember having a rapport with my president or perhaps the campaign that helped get him elected. This is just like with any other company. Do not think that you have enough “whuffie” or social capital that you can run around asking your customers to do whatever you want and expect them to do it often of their own free volition. Because that’s not the case. Treat the customers with respect and show them you want to have conversations with them and they’ll be glad that you at least showed an interest in them.

Now there may be some haters that think that I’m bashing on Obama a bit too much, but let’s look at this at a more global perspective. All politicians are “using and abusing” the system. If you’re going to get into social media, remember that you can’t play your constituents. Just because you’re going to use the web to push your agenda doesn’t mean that we’re all going to have to pay attention to it. If you send out an email or post a video like Obama asking us to do something, you’re sorely mistaken. Looking back at Obama’s email advocating health care reform and “requesting” that we write some letters to newspapers, I wonder what makes them think that I’m interested in helping them out? Where’s the email from the Obama campaign advocating on my behalf the reform for financial institutions giving big bonuses to their executives? I don’t remember getting any dialogue or conversation. Why must you motivate your masses based on what YOU think is best. Have you talked to your constituents to find out what they’re feeling? We’re human beings and the best way to know who we are is through social media…not your polls.

So I implore you, politicians and companies…while this may be more targeted towards the Obama administration and campaign, please be sure to check yourself and don’t use social media to simply push out your information. Remember that helpful and successful dialogue will open many doors and get people to truly feel empowered and energized to help you in your causes.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently Flipboard's Assistant Managing Editor, overseeing news curation in technology, science, gaming and health. In addition to his day job, Ken's the co-host of "The Created Economy" podcast, examining the Creator Economy. In a past life, he was a former reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding.