President Barack Obama's surprise appearance on Reddit could not have been better timed. As Mitt Romney and the Republicans engaged in the vestigial tradition of counting delegates, hoping their speeches would filter down to the electorate through the media, President Obama reached millions of people directly by answering questions on arguably the biggest social media site that could still be considered underground. On his MacBook, of course.
The president was only logged on for half an hour, only answered ten questions, and yes, his answers were as rehearsed as in any public venue. The best AMAs are those where the subject literally means "ask me anything." By contrast, Obama left upwards of 10,000 questions unanswered. Many people couldn't even access Reddit during the event because the site was so overwhelmed with traffic.
The mere presence of a sitting president on Reddit was enough to win hearts until the next "world's cutest cat"
And yet the mere presence of a sitting president on Reddit — even that the President knows what Reddit is — was enough to win hearts until the next "world's cutest cat." The majority of Reddit is Obama country, after all. The second-most popular post in Reddit's history before today was in 2008, announcing the news that Obama had been elected President. So it's no shock that Redditors were delighted to talk to — and be recognized by — one of their heroes. However, the impact spread far beyond Reddit. The president's brief "Ask Me Anything" immediately captured the news cycle and cracked the top ten trending topics on Twitter alongside #GOP2012 and "Republican National Convention."
Reddit's certainly raised its profile in politics in the last two years due to its sheer size — more than two billion pageviews a month — and its successful grassroots lobbying against the Stop Online Piracy Act. It used to be that politicians had opted to collect the top questions from Redditors and then answer on video because "that's what we could get people to agree to," said Reddit's general manager Erik Martin. Ron Paul and Nick Clegg, now Deputy Prime Minister of the U.K., both did their AMAs on video. But lately, politicians have been answering in text, submitting to the site's native format.
"We wanted it to be as organic as possible."
"We wanted it to be as organic as possible," Martin said. "If we announced it ahead of time, it would not be true to the spirit." On Reddit, users set the agenda by voting up or down on every post and every reply. This means that the questions on the top of the page during an AMA have been pushed there by popular vote. Of course, there was another benefit: by keeping the AMA a surprise, Reddit and the Obama campaign ensured that interest groups didn't have time to queue up questions and lobby to get them voted to the top.
Obama has hosted digital town halls before, as when he answered questions via Twitter (remember "twoosh master"?) and Google+ Hangouts. So what was the big deal about logging onto Reddit and reminding people that he's a Bulls fan? The reason is that Reddit is, well, cooler than Twitter and Google+ Hangouts. Twitter and Google are big corporations, committed to being nonpartisan and getting along with their advertisers.
Reddit, which once flouted its parent company by running ads to legalize marijuana, is more subversive. Remember when Bill Clinton answered the "boxers or briefs" question during an MTV "Rock the Vote" forum and young voters thought it was the coolest thing ever? Well, Reddit is the new MTV. And faux-candidness still works wonders.
Obama's Reddit AMA was a gimmick, but it was a brilliant one. The juxtaposition of both candidates preaching to their respective choirs — Obama on Reddit, Romney at the Republican National Convention in Tampa — shows that Obama and his team are still leaps ahead of the Republicans when it comes to campaigning on the internet. After the AMA, Obama's campaign put up a web page to collect Redditor email addresses, complete with a photo of the president in very Reddit style: "IS THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES," reads the overlaid text. "DOES AN AMA."
Meanwhile, news broke elsewhere that the Romney campaign will be the first political campaign to buy a Twitter trending topic. "Wants to win the internet," the Reddit photo of Romney might say. "Buys a hashtag."