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“You’ve been taking a lot of shots at my job, I decided I’m gonna go ahead and take a shot at yours,” Obama said to Stephen Colbert on Monday night. Based on reactions, it didn’t matter that this, like his surreal appearance on “Between Two Ferns,” was a clear ploy to increase awareness of the Affordable Care Act.
Among other presidential things that took their shot at breaking the Internet, there was that girl who wished Obama was Beyonce, the Vine of Michelle and the most famous turnip of all time, the photo of face-planting boy and the charming one of tiny Spider-Man in the Oval before of that. Each blew up with the force of a “Too Many Cooks” remake by “Apparently” kid. Some instances, i.e. the ones not involving funny children, are more focused than others, though they all work to garner a following. Is it all simply an effect of the evolving way we consume information or is Obama’s viral approach to the presidency a strategy that will make a major difference in the way we understand the office?
Let’s talk about “Colbert” and “Between Two Ferns.” Some personalities work with well this kind of material, and Obama’s is one of them. So was Bill Clinton’s back in the early ‘90s [Insert Saxophone Rendition Of “Heart Break Hotel” Here]. For what may be the exact opposite, look no further than Henry Kissinger’s appearance on the “Report” -- there are inanimate objects Colbert has had to work harder to manipulate for comedy. Beyond that, Obama’s charm is compounded by his youth following. When the GOP tries to spread messages in this way, it’s a different sort of thing entirely. Remember that anti-cool Obama video that American Crossroads made in 2012? Cringing through it is reminder of the conflicting narratives that have always been at play with Obama: "He’s in touch with pop culture" verses "he has a celebrity status that makes him unfit for the job."
Obama is a very specific president. On some level, though, this kind of content may indicate the shifting way we interact with the office. Our attention span for the president’s traditional means of communicating with us are waning at an alarming rate. According to a study by Daniel C. Hallin published in the Journal of Communication, the average sound bite reduced from 43 seconds to nine seconds in 1992. More than 20 years later, a realistic estimate would be what? One second, possibly two if the message incorporates a cat playing a keyboard?
Our reduced engagement and penchant for viral consumption lends far more power to viral news items, images and videos than, say, The State of the Union. This is obvious. Probably no one is tuned in to CSPAN right now, while at least a few thousand are watching that video of a girl falling in manure while chasing Harry Styles (really!). There are realities of this worth considering for the way we process information in general, but it has particular salience when it comes to the messages we receive from the president.
The level of political awareness in this country is probably best summed up by a recent Anneberg Public Policy Center poll which found that only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government and 35 percent "could not name a single one." If that level of ignorance is buffered by only those things spun into viral gold, we’re in trouble. This is not a dystopian statement of domination via hashtag as much as concern over the way our reduced engagement will lead to even further reduced understanding of truly important information. Obama’s methods are not evil (or, as the GOP would have it, “too cool”). He supports ObamaCare and he should want to spread that information and encourage people to enroll. But he has harnessed a power of communication that presidents haven’t had had in the past few decades. And this kind of viral stuff affects our lives (and health care policies) at least a little more than that baby named Charlie biting his brother’s finger.
Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca