November 24th, 2009
Last week, a brief tempest in a teapot brewed up when Barack Obama mentioned in a townhall on his China trip that he’d never used Twitter himself. The whole thing blew by pretty quickly, largely since I doubt that too many people were genuinely surprised that The Leader of the Free World hasn’t played around with “his” microblogging feed. For one thing, Twitter barely existed when he started running for President, and he’s apparently been a bit busy in the intervening couple of years.
But I’d also argue that Twitter is fundamentally a bad match for a Chief Executive, for exactly the same reasons that so many other people are drawn to it. Like the rest of the social media universe, Twitter is effectively unfiltered, with a low wheat-to-chaff ratio even if you’re careful whom you follow. In many ways this is a strength, since part of the fun of the service is that you get access to so much information and opinion coming in from so many directions.
While unfiltered information is valuable for bloggers, journalists and those of us with short attention spans, it’s not usually the best thing with which to fill your time when your actions have real-world consequences for, well, the entire world. Twitter is an information firehose, but the whole point of making decisions is more often to boil things down to their essentials: too little information gets in the way of good decisions, but so does too much.
One point David Plouffe repeatedly made in his recent book was that the candidate’s time was the most valuable resource his campaign had, and the same no doubt holds true now that Obama is in the White House rather than on the trail. Politicians have staff precisely because the time of the person at the top matters, and one of their main roles is to filter information so that only the most relevant and most important breaks through. The potential downside of course is that staff may shape, block or ignore so much information that the Decider doesn’t have enough good facts to work with (see: Iraq Invasion, 2003), but in Obama’s case his innate intellectual curiosity (which also shows up constantly in Plouffe’s book) combined with the apparent quality of his advisors seems to be an effective counter.
And I doubt that being off Twitter will hurt Obama politically, despite a little rumbling here and there when The Ugly Truth came out. In the 2008 race, John McCain’s not using a Blackberry reflected somewhat poorly on him because it fit a narrative that he was old and out of touch, but in this case, Obama’s Twitter-avoidance actually helps him because it reinforces a narrative that he is a serious man. Imagine the converse: if he were active on Twitter, Republicans would no doubt try to spin it to make him look frivolous and immature.
Sure, it probably wouldn’t hurt for The President to check Twitter out long enough to see what makes it tick, but I’d suggest that there are better uses for his time. Like for instance, steering the country out of the ditch.