August 29, 2012
Obama spoke before the crowd of college students in Charlottesville. He’d been snubbed by the University of Virginia’s Republican Board of Visitors, who didn’t allow him to speak on campus, claiming it would disrupt the first days of class. Instead, the president’s rally was held at a 10-minute walk from campus, at an open-air arena downtown. It was hot. One army veteran was passed out, hungover, on a press table. Obama kept the waving brief.
He walked off the stage to a holding room in the back of the arena.
Two staff members waited for him. One was 27-year-old Teddy Goff, head of Obama’s digital team; the other was the president’s below-the-radar speechwriter, Cody Keenan. James Kvaal, David Plouffe, Jen Psaki, and Pete Souza also walked in and out. The room had white walls, beige tile, a cheap standing lamp behind a desk and chair, and an Apple computer with a wireless mouse on the desk.
The president sat down in front of the MacBook Pro.
They snapped a picture of the president, and Goff posted it on the Internet Reddit site.
This is President Barack Obama.
Obama was about to take part in a phenomenon called “Ask Me Anything,” a popular interview series on Reddit, a site with 50 million visitors a month. Redditors, as the site’s 2 million in-crowd-y regular users are known, did not take too kindly to frauds or dodges or interviewees who didn’t take Reddit seriously. AMA subjects ran the gamut from celebrities (Woody Harrelson, Seth MacFarlane, PSY) to regular professionals (a male stripper) to basically anything (a woman who was date raped). Community members were also encouraged to submit requests for people they wanted to question.
This was a day of political-campaign and Internet firsts, the sitting president subjecting himself to a free- for-all question-and-answer session with a hardcore community of pot-smoking freedom junkies who hated drones and loved porn and had a keen interest in politics and the future. It was chaotically democratic, and something of a gamble. Reddit had its baggage, issues, controversies, etc.; it wouldn’t generally pass a campaign or White House vetting. There’s some fucked up shit there, creep shots, racist rants, borderline teen porn, for example—and other good shit, too, for the most part, but the kind of material that could become fodder for critics looking to attack Obama.
More pressingly, though: if Obama didn’t get into it, if he didn’t engage, if he came across as a phony . . . Goff and the digital team had been kicking around the idea during a brainstorming session with Cutter, figuring out what the president was going to do during the week of the Republican convention.
“Look, Obama’s gonna do this youth tour. . . . We’ve got two chunks of his time,” Cutter told Goff. One chunk would be for a conference call or a roundtable discussion. “And what do we want to do with the other?”
Cutter said do it.
An hour later, the logistics and time requirements were arranged. Goff did not sleep in the days leading up to the event. This was only going to work if Obama was himself and was willing to take oddball questions, willing to be funny. If he went on about middle-class security and jobs, it could turn into a debacle.
“He gets it,” Cutter said. “He’s into it. He wants it to be real.”
Obama sat in front of his laptop, wearing a white collared shirt and a blue tie with white stripes.
“So what is this?” Obama asked.
Goff briefed him for less than a minute: an insanely popular social news site, crowd-sourced, no editorial, voice of the people.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“All right, you know how this works?”
“No. I have no idea.”
Obama, at his computer, entered his greeting into Reddit.
Hey everybody—this is barack.
Just finished a great rally in Charlottesville, and am looking forward to your questions. At the top, I do want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with folks who are dealing with Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf, and to let them know that we are going to be coordinating with state and local officials to make sure that we give families everything they need to recover.
Obama was supposed to hand the computer over to Keenan, and Keenan would type Obama’s dictated responses in a shared Google doc. Then, Goff, on his own computer, would post the answers from the doc into the forum.
Scratch the plan. Obama wanted to keep writing himself.
“I’ll just keep going,” he said.
Goff scanned the message board, selecting questions, putting them in a Google doc for Obama to look at, and choosing which ones to respond to.
Row 18, 19, 20—which one do you want to answer, Mr. President?
“I’ll take ’em all.”
Obama answered questions about small businesses, Internet freedom, the corrupting influence of money in politics, student loans, basketball.
Silent1mezzo: What’s the recipe for the White House’s beer?
Obama: It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.
The AMA broke the Internet. Swarmed Reddit servers had never supported so many views before; the site slowed down a bit. Obama’s connection didn’t falter but back in the Chicago office, the connection was patchy. The campaign couldn’t follow the whole thing.
The time limit had been set for 30 minutes, but Obama stayed for 15 minutes longer just because he was into it.
Obama answered eight questions and was heading into his ninth when Goff let him in on a Reddit in-joke. “There’s this thing about Reddit where people say, ‘Not bad,’ ” Goff told Obama. “Just trust me, that’s a thing. . . .”
Obama typed this:
“Speaking of balance, though, I need to get going so I’m back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating—this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER—if you need to know how to register, go to Gottaregister.com. By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience—NOT BAD!”
Obama made the call to use all caps.
The posting directions on Reddit once said, “Serious and reasonable AMA requests only. Don’t say I want an AMA with Barack Obama.” Now that Obama had done one, they had to change it. The directions now say “Serious and Reasonable requests, no AMA Request: God!”
Back in Chicago, staffers looked through the numbers. Within 24 hours, 5.2 million people had read the Reddit interview. It was the most-trafficked post in Reddit’s history. Just before signing off, Obama mentioned GottaRegister.com, the campaign’s official voter registration site, and 30,000 people registered to vote from that link. “And he didn’t even hyperlink the fucking thing, so they, like, actually copy-and-pasted it, and opened up a new tab, and put it in,” said a senior official. On Election Day, 82,670 Redditors would connect again with the campaign, giving “upvotes” to a message posted by Obama in the afternoon, with tens of thousands more likely seeing the post. A massive hit—and strategically successful. The Reddit chat occurred in the middle of the Republican National Convention, and the Democrats, through a guerilla-like tactic, had seized control of the Internet for the day. They’d do it again that week, too.
The next night, Clint Eastwood opened up for Mitt Romney at the RNC. He talked to an empty chair. Elizabeth Jarvis-Shean ran into Jim Messina’s office: You’ve got to see this. Stop. What. You. Are. Doing. Two other Obama digital staffers—Jessi Langsen and Alex Wall—who were watching the feed came up to Goff and Joe Rospars within minutes. Another staffer had found a picture of the president pointing at a chair and asked, “Can we post this picture of the president?” Others were a little hesitant.
“I don’t know, guys. That feels a bit like we’re saying ‘fuck you,’ ” said one official. . . . “Clint Eastwood is superpopular.”
But then Langsen and Wall found a way of doing it that was like “Hey, fuck you” but not quite as blatant and with a little more style.
Langsen came up with the caption: “This seat’s taken.” It became the most retweeted political missive to date, and a way to answer Eastwood without seeming “unpresidential.”
The Obama squad had the Internet on their side, producing viral hit after viral hit, and few negative Obama items went viral that cycle. Even fewer positive Romney items went viral (they were almost nonexistent); only the negative ones did. The most creative forces in the country—the minds in Silicon Valley and elsewhere—had joined forces with Obama and with the Democrats. The Dems had a closer blood connection to the West Coast creatives than the GOP did and it showed. The only exception were the libertarian supporters of Ron Paul, who managed to tap into the Internet’s political potential.
Back in Chicago, the staff were examining the Reddit transcript. There was one question everyone on the team wished Obama had answered. Goff probably would have selected it, according to his colleagues, but he didn’t see it at the time.
Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?
In the days following, staffers debated the answer. Most immediately chose the 100 duck-sized horses— they would be easy to stomp on and were, generally, a reflection of the usual day-to-day conflicts in life. A danger to the shins, but possibly manageable. “Ducks are not exactly teeny-tiny—so 100 duck-sized horses (as opposed to duckling-sized horses), while smaller than a miniature pony, are still probably clocking in somewhere around ten pounds each,” one Obama official argued. “That’s a lot to kick/throw/battle.”
Who would choose to fight a duck the size of a horse? The beak. The wingspan. The ability to defend and attack in the air, on land, and in the water. “Also, lacking a weapon of some kind, how exactly do you defeat it? Wrestling it to the ground seems unlikely. Can you break its legs? Snap a wing?” the official continued. “Yet, it’s just one opponent—you can focus all your energy, attention, and strength on outsmarting it. Maybe it tires easily. Hard to know.”
No, maybe the question was rigged—could anyone truly choose a monster duck over a swarm of miniature horses? Maybe there was one man in America who would have chosen the king-sized waterfowl.
Maybe Obama would have answered: duck.