Why Barack Obama Using Twitter is a Terrible Idea

By Sree Sreenivasan | June 21, 2011 5:05pm
President Barack Obama will use Twitter more during the campaign.
President Barack Obama will use Twitter more during the campaign.
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Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

By Sree Sreenivasan

DNAinfo Contributing Editor

I was teaching a social media workshop on Saturday (see the handout and guide I use here) and we were at the section I call "Change Your Media Diet," offering tech sites everyone should be reading.

I pulled up the main site I recommend everyone add, Mashable, and discovered a story that made me, for a moment, speechless in front of three dozen people.

"Barack Obama to Start Tweeting From @BarackObama Account," said the headline in Jolie O'Dell's story. It began:

U.S. President Barack Obama will start regularly tweeting from his official Twitter account.

In an update today, it was announced that the President's reelection staff would be managing his social media presence and accounts on Facebook and Twitter.

A rep also revealed that the Commander In Chief would be penning tweets of his own and that “on Twitter, tweets from the President will be signed '-BO.'"

My instant reaction, which I shared with the audience: This is a bad idea. A few hours later, I hadn’t changed my mind when I tweeted "Terrible idea, methinks. Prez Obama to tweet from @BarackObama account, reports @mashable's @JolieODell: http://bit.ly/lCH9tK."

Two days later, I am even more convinced that this is a bad idea — in concept and in timing.

On Twitter and Facebook, authenticity is a primary virtue, so for some time now, there’s been criticism of Obama for not doing his own tweeting on the @BarackObama account. But every time someone raised this with me, I’d say I’m glad he’s not on Twitter — he's got a country to run.

As two years of nonstop writing about social media (columns on Twitter here and Facebook here) can attest, I am a big believer in the power of social media to connect people, help nonprofits and corporations and slowly change the world.

But I also know that using these services properly means a major investment of time and attention, something that if you don't provide in adequate amounts, you are likely to get in trouble.

Just ask Anthony Weiner, whose world collapsed around him because a single tweet had a simple technical error.

Let's set aside the ethics and morality of what he did and focus on the tech aspects of his troubles. He meant to send a DM (or direct — private — message) of that infamous photo to a young female admirer, but ended up sending it as a public message instead.

Not to say that Obama would do such a thing, but gaffes made on Twitter last forever, or at least long enough to do real damage. Each day’s 140-million-plus tweets are being archived by the Library of Congress (here's how).

So why in the world would the president want to get directly involved in social media? He has teams of people to do this kind of work while he can concentrate on his day job.

The answer, not surprisingly, is politics. The re-election campaign, which swings through Manhattan this week, is taking over the social media accounts, it says, according to a post on BarackObama.com:

This change will give us new opportunities to make the most of these channels, using them not only to report what the President is doing every day but to connect to the millions of supporters who will be driving this campaign. We'll be asking for your feedback and ideas, updating you on ways to get involved, sharing the best stories that cross our desks, and maybe even retweeting you every now and again.

I can understand the impulse to have Obama do his own tweeting, so that he comes across as more more authentic. But the potential pitfalls are just too high. For his sake, I hope he doesn't have access to the accounts himself — that is, he dictates the tweets to other people.

Otherwise, the temptation to respond, to engage, to connect is too high. What's to keep him from saying something off the top of his head to a supporter or a critic?

Many superstar athletes have had to apologize for things said in a social-media setting that they wish they hadn't. Why put the president in the same situation?

Remember the fuss when President-Elect Obama wanted to keep using his BlackBerry in the White House? In the end, he was allowed to keep it, but with a lot of special features dealing with security, privacy, etc.

Every day, millions of people make mistakes on email, hitting "reply" when they mean to hit "forward," or hitting "reply all" when they don't mean to. And that's with a technology some of us have been using for more than 15 years. So imagine what can go wrong with a technology that's much newer, is less intuitive and is much more public.

His first real tweet, on Sunday, was harmless, but every word he writes is going to be examined closely, with lots of enemies waiting to pounce:

Being a father is sometimes my hardest but always my most rewarding job. Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there. -BO

On another note, why use the unfortunate initials, "BO" to sign the presidential tweets? His real initials are "BHO" and won't cause the extra snickering.

Unless he is extremely lucky (and he and an assistant spend three to five minutes composing each tweet), this is going to end badly.

Post your comments below using your Facebook account or on Twitter @sree.

Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia journalism professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.