President Obama on Reddit: Just a stunt?

President Obama broke no new ground in his debut appearance on the social forum Reddit, answering 10 questions (of his choosing) and crashing the site. The only surprise was the venue.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Supporters of President Obama cheer as he walks on stage to speak at a campaign event on Wednesday in Charlottesville, Va. On the same day, he connected with some 200,000 visitors in a debut appearance on the social forum Reddit.

President Obama made a surprise appearance on an “Ask Me Anything” session on the social forum Reddit yesterday, delighting Redditors by fielding questions on a wide variety of topics, from the difficulties of handling school loans to how he balances his work and family time.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors crowded onto the site, crashing it for a time. To some in the tech world, the visit was a coming-out party for such Internet platforms, a moment that showed they have the power to create news, not just aggregate it.

“Just as Oprah joining Twitter was seen as a turning point for that service, the President participating on Reddit is a breakthrough for the service,” writes Christina Warren on the Web news site Mashable.

Well, we’d agree it was a great thing for Reddit, per se. It shined lots of attention on its interesting AMA section and gives a boost to its overall brand.

Plus, it was a good move for the White House. As Ms. Warren notes, there were over 200,000 visitors on the site watching the event live yesterday at around 4:30 p.m. That’s a pretty big audience, and probably more than were watching the GOP convention at that moment. Political counterprogramming! It’s what’s for afternoon tea.

So does it matter that Mr. Obama said virtually nothing new? He answered 10 questions, most of them blandly. He agreed that it’s hard to repay college loans in a down economy, said he supports the space program, and acknowledged that his hardest decision as president was approving the surge in Afghanistan.

His favorite basketball player? Michael Jordan. The White House beer recipe? It’s coming out soon. (OK, as far as we can tell that last one might have been new news, as we in the MSM say.)

Let’s try and figure this out – the Reddit appearance did not provide the US public much additional information about Obama policies. But it was important because it was on Reddit? Is that what Marshall McLuhan meant with the phrase “the medium is the message”?

We’d agree with The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal on this one – there was nothing revealed in Obama’s Reddit answers that would have interested any Redditor if had appeared on another format.

Plus, as Mr. Madrigal notes, the Reddit AMA is a terrible means for extracting information from a politician. They get to sit behind a desk, choose what questions they want to answer, formulate their answers in private, and then push “enter.” That sounds a whole lot easier than holding a White House press conference.

“We’ll know Reddit has really arrived as a political community when [Obama] uses a visit to announce a policy change they’ve been promoting, perhaps around marijuana policy or civil liberties broadly construed. Until then, it’s all kissing babies and shaking hands, only with more LOLs,” writes Madrigal.

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