Congress members Michele Bachmann and Alan Grayson have seized the power of YouTube to increase their mass appeal. At the same time, they've alienated themselves from others and even made some enemies. Yet that might just be the name of the game in politics today. If you can keep up with the Obamas on Flickr, there's no evidence of restrictions to the online reach of legislators.
Social media has made an indelible mark on politics. Where once politicians and world leaders would escort the people into the future, social media sites are now propelling them forward. Left for debate, though, is whether these new vehicles to create a larger sphere of influence are actually shaping better leaders. As a Time Magazine story points out:
"It's all theater," says South Carolina's James Clyburn, the House Democratic whip. "People have learned to speak in sound bites and look to generate headlines."
Over the past few years (and seems like more in Internet speak), politicians have begun to build up their followings online. Now it may be a necessity in order to keep up with others who have developed smarter strategies. You simply can't ignore how Grayson and Bachmann have become household names in such a short period of time. If you search the most watched clips on YouTube on a given day, you'll find more videos from Congress, the Senate, and other legislative press conferences than ever before. Want to know the latest on the health option? Listen to Sen. Harry Reid talk about it.
It makes sense. There's always been an expected narcissism that comes with politicians. The Internet, though, offers even more opportunities to put them on display. Although C-Span has been around for quite some time, no one shined through as must-watch TV. That's changed with YouTube. Popular politicians like Al Franken run their own channels, posting their best moments for all to see, click, rate, comment on, and pass along to friends.
And now everyone wants a piece of the pie. Visionaries who somehow meshed politics with social media for personal gain and attention are giving way to copycats a dime a dozen. In place are the next group of legislators hoping to replicate the success. Take Steve LaTourette, for example, a Republican congressman from Ohio. See what he did on the House floor this week:
Fiascos like this one are only going to become more run of the mill. It's something that writer Chuck Klosterman mentioned the other night at a book reading at a Barnes and Noble in New York City. Klosterman said that once he spots cameras rolling in the audience - and pointed to the one held by the gentleman to my left - he could no longer be his real self. It makes him more careful about what he says, shares, and does once he consciously recognizes the inevitability that people outside that room will be seeing him. (He also pointed to this story as a cautionary tale.) He can't make the same joke at two different locations or run the risk of being labeled a fraud. As a result, Klosterman clams up and gives less of himself to his adoring audience.
Usually it works the opposite way. When people know cameras are rolling, they crave the potential for media exposure. Moreover, if the newsmakers themselves have control over what gets posted, they'll do whatever it takes to manufacture a marketable moment. And that's what LaTourette does in that clip. We're speeding past a time when legislators can use their platform to deliver a rant, or a song, to drive support their way.
Klosterman's caution is well-received and understandable. And so should our skepticism for LaTourette's antics. All of us know how to spot a phony.