So, today’s the day. Blue Monday has been and gone and a proper Blue Tuesday dawns upon us. As if you needed reminding, today’s the day that Barack Obama becomes the 44th President of the United States. Frankly there’s no escaping it – front page stories, homepage homages, radio rebuttals and television topics worldwide are all eminate to one story today.
While nobody should realistically expect Obama to be the be-all-and-end-all as regards the message of change and reform of the west’s creaking political establishments, Obama’s inauguration does bring – if only for a little while – the prospect of tangible change, where no longer do we have a Leader of the Free World™ whose inarticulation makes for an easy scapegoat in the current problems the world finds itself, but rather a bestselling author, noted academic, and the personal embodiment of everything the 2009 zeitgeist demands of its leaders.
For me the highlight of Obama’s historic rise to the top of the political pile was the surpassing and genial use that he and his campaign made of the social networks and media that we, as citizens of the third millennium and the information age, use to talk to each other. Obama & Co had their fingers on the pulse to know that traditional media was becoming too fragmented for it to be the exclusive source of campaign news for voters, and that only enormous media buys – nailing down a half-hour segment on every main TV network in the run-up, for example – would be enough to get people onside. They knew that a speech couldn’t be mediocre for it to be well-received: in the age of YouTube, every word of every speech was always available. Thus, they embraced the means that you and I use to talk to each other: social networks, microblogging, social video networks. Obama nobly sacrificed climactical style for emotive and political substance in his speeches and made them all available online, and set up a notable – and what’s more, active – presence on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. The results were phenomenal: by Election Day Obama had 125,000 followers on Twitter (he currently has 140,000 exactly), 3 million fans on Facebook and half as many again on MySpace. By talking to people on their own means, and in their own time, Obama bypassed the need to have people pay attention when he wanted them to.
Since election, however, these channels have sadly become little more than heartfelt souvenirs of the epic campaign that had long passed. While the Office of the President-Elect has set up a very Web 2.0-esque website at change.gov  – including YouTube  and Twitter  accounts – the level of interactivity and responsiveness of these accounts has been sorely lacking. Fireside chats posted on YouTube are all well and good – well, to be fair, they’re better than well and good – but active consultation with the citizenry who spawned such critical and spirited debates with each other is quite another matter indeed.
Frankly, there are a few steps in online life that every elected public representative, no matter how menial or trivial their work, should be taking – and largely it’s a blueprint that Obama himself laid out, which others have since taken to the levels they ought to aspire to. Firstly, every politician ought to be on Twitter (and I mean every politician) – but not only should they have an account that they use, they should Tweet more actively and more honestly. Don’t do what Obama did and merely say “At a Vote For Change rally in Raleigh, NC. Watch online at (link)”. Say something like:
Voting on the Dáil floor on vital amendments to the Anglo Irish Bank Bill. Enjoyed the tense and spirited debate here today.
Be open, be accountable, but be honest. What people hate most about politicians is that they all seem so uniformly phlegmatic and without really empathy or emotion. Twitter – even if you use it the shallow way and ignore responses – is the perfect response. (Responding to your @ replies would be a bonus too, but take one step at a time. John Culberson  literally can’t keep up with the replies he gets as a Texan congressman.)
Of course, no politician should be ever allowed to hold a public office without keeping a blog (frankly it should be mandatory). Even if your posts are far less frequent than they should be, just try to take out a half-hour a month to write about what you’ve been up to that your constituents won’t know about; what your priorities are; what anecdotes you’ve been told that you think deserve a wider audience… just blog! For the love of God, blog! Think of it like your Twitter but without the crummy character limit. You have as much time as you want to air your personal thoughts to the world, outside of the constraints of the traditional media – use it. Supplement your canned press releases with more honest follow-up on why your local area needs the new childcare facility you’ve secured, or how the rezoning of local land will help the people you’re elected to serve.
If you’re undertaking something that words can’t describe, open a Flickr. This is perhaps the most invaluable thing that Barack Obama’s team brought to the electoral playbook, as far as the public are concerned: since the account was opened, and posted pictures of that chilly morning when the skinny kid with the funny name said he wanted to be President, Obama’s team have posted 53,526 photos of the campaign – every pit-stop, every photocall, every behind-the-scenes gaffe, and even the moment when the networks called the election and John McCain broadcast his concession to the world. Again, people see politicians as being too robotic and without emotion to have touching moments like that, it’s why there was such uproar at the “terrorist fist-jab” Obama and Michelle shared onstage.Show yourself to the person you are.
And finally, use the social media that the people use. Set up a profile on Facebook and its competitors, and set up a page where people can pledge their suppotr to you. Set up groups – “Senior Citizens for Obama” or whatever. A politician is lucky to have people set up unofficial supporters clubs for them – but how much better is a supporters’ club going to be if it’s run and operated by you, and where the talking points and overall discussion are on matters that you, as the public figure and as the owner of the group, lay down for it? There may well have been a “Students for Obama” group without the team needing to set one up – but if you control the meeting space, you can manipulate it so that your followers will do whatever you need them to.
On a momentous day like today it hurts to remember that I’m a young Irishman; I’ve never seen my country be the centre of the world stage for all the right reasons. I’ve never had a public figure grab my attention and sway my emotions like those in the United States have had. I don’t have a Barack Obama – and even if I buy into him, he doesn’t rule my country. Any positive effects Obama might have on Ireland will be entirely accidental.What could come from this incredible era, though, is that the only man who the whole world regards as a role model, could make this incredible leap to the 21st century where every public figure, every public body, every office and department, recognises the power of their public and online presence, and spread its Gospel.
Imagine leaving behind a world where everyone who had a responsibility to the public, showed the public how seriously they took it, and made us feel more educated along the way? Now that would be a legacy someone could be proud of.
Mr Obama, I wish you well, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.