Barack Obama: President of the New Media World – and watch out for those citizen journalists!

His own brand...
His own brand...
Inauguration Day is finally here! Today, 20 January 2009, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America.

Obama campaigned – and won – on the core promise of change. And even before he moved into the White House, he achieved many firsts. Among them was being the first American leader to understand the power of new media and to use it effectively to harness both campaign contributions and, eventually, votes.

On 6 November 2008, soon after the election results were confirmed, we noted how Obama had just been elected ‘President of the New Media world’. I explained: “Obama’s rise has epitomised change in many ways. Among other things, he is the first elected leader of a major democracy who shows understanding and mastery over the New Media World, which is radically different from the old media order.”

Of course, others had different takes on the same outcome. One of the funniest was by The Onion, which proclaimed: Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.’ It read, in part: “African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America. In his new high-stress, low-reward position, Obama will be charged with such tasks as completely overhauling the nation’s broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis.”

The sheer magnitude of Obama’s challenges has become clearer in the weeks following the historic election. While the economy will certainly dominate his agenda, he will also have to live up to the many expectations of hope that his campaign sparked off in hundreds of millions of people — and not just in the United States.

How will the ‘President of the New Media world’ remain engaged with the millions of conversations taking place 24/7 on the web and through mobile devices? Is this realistically possible given his roles as the chief executive of beleaguered America, Inc., and commander-in-chief of the world’s only superpower?

Already, there is much interest whether security concerns and legal requirements will allow Obama to keep using his BlackBerry, to which he admits being addicted. “I’m still clinging to my BlackBerry,” Obama said only a few days ago in an interview with The New York Times. “They’re going to pry it out of my hands.”

The new face of Hope
The new face of Hope
More to the point, how long will the mainstream media’s honeymoon with the new President last? And how will citizen journalists, many of who cheerled Obama in his long and arduous campaign, now relate to their man in Washington DC? Can the Obama Administration strike deals with citizen journalists as every administration has done with the mainstream media over the decades? Outside the strict security cocoon of the White House, will this presidency ever be able to have any moments ‘off the record’ with every digitally connected person being a potential citizen journalist?

Remember how his comments about “bitter” small-town Americans clinging to their guns and religion — uttered at a ticket-only and supposedly no-media San Francisco fund-raiser during the campaign — came to be publicised? And that, too, by a pro-Obama blogger writing on the openly pro-Democratic blogger site Huffington Post!

Then there’s the power of moving images moving around online as broadband rolls out across the planet, and speeds improve to support real time video-watching. The day Americans went to the polls to elect Obama, we recalled the hugely popular Obama Girl (‘I got a crush on Obama’) – an internet viral video, first posted on YouTube in June 2007 – and asked Can this little video change history? We had our answer within 24 hours.

While Obama Girl was a well-edited, slick campaign-boosting video released online, the thousands of citizen-filmed videos being posted online are not. And yet, in that no-frills mode, some bring out public interest concerns that have implications for public policy debates and/or law enforcement.

A current example is the sad case of Oscar Grant, a young, unarmed black man who was fatally shot by police officers while laying face-down on a BART subway platform in Oakland, California, on 31 December 2008. Several citizens filmed the incident on their mobile phones. Three separate videos, circulating online at a rapid pace, show various angles and stages of the incident. See one of them here. These have already put the spotlight on police conduct and may influence the judicial process.

President Obama arrives at the White House to lead the executive of a nation that is unlike any his predecessors faced. His inauguration will be the most digitised, but that’s only the beginning. For four or eight years, Obama’s every move, word and gesture will be captured, dissected and debated to exhaustion by admirers and detractors alike. And his administration will be under scrutiny by thousands of citizen journalists who don’t share much except the digital platforms and social networks on which they post their impressions.

Welcome to the New Media Presidency. The hard work – and real fun – begin now!

Watch this cyberspace…