The thing with social media that makes it so unruly is that it allows the user to be whoever they want to be. They have complete control (save respective user guidelines and restrictions on all platforms) over what they would like to be seen on their profiles and accounts, giving them freedom to manufacture an image to make themselves more marketable or relatable to the people they want to appeal to. Sometimes, users are really good at maintaining their social media image, and in turn, gain multitudes of followers and subscribers; real people who spend at least a minute portion of their day, checking for and interacting with them. However, in order to do this, these users more or less have to be active on social media, often on a daily basis; communicating with their followers and maintaining their image on social media becomes a part of their life in the real world, and in the same way that accounts with many followers and subscribers are coordinated by living, breathing and sometimes multiple people, the accounts of those followers and subscribers are coordinated by real-life individuals.
Our obsession with and optimism for social media is anything but odd; humans are social by nature–of course we would welcome the convenience of being able to communicate with any and everyone from the comfort of our homes and fingertips. But this is also where social media can be hazardous; when we interact with someone on a regular basis, we inevitably establish a relationship with them, regardless of whether those interactions are virtual or organic, and ultimately begin to feel like we know them (in varying degrees, but I digress.) despite not knowing them at all. Paired with the ‘production of self’ concept of social media, this breach of the line between the internet and real-life potentially whispers “Problematic,” when the president of the United States has these accounts where they can directly communicate with the public.
This week, I came across an article by Ian Bogost on The Atlantic’s website titled, “Obama Was Too Good at Social Media” where he discussed the ways that the exiting president interacted with the internet and changed what our idea of what “The President” could be, vis-à-vis a short-term ‘contest’ organized by the Obama White House, where it invited the public to come up with creative ways to digitally archive the President’s social media interactions, so that they may still be accessible long after he is out of office. Bogost listed a number of projects ‘innovative’ enough to be selected by the White House for this, but one that stood out to me was a landing page created by GIPHY where it hosts GIFs and Vines of the President and First Lady. Many of the GIFs under the ‘Barack Obama’ search are of the President displaying his natural charisma, in professional scenarios (conferences, speeches, etc.) accompanied by quotes in vernacular that resonate with various subgroups of America’s youth. They personify the idea of President Barack Obama as a man who is down-to-earth, and fits snugly into the “cool dad” archetype. He could’ve and has taken advantage of this.
The fact that the president can have this kind of presence in the first place is potentially dangerous. In his article, Bogost states, “Citizens are dazzled and drawn to an image of Barack Obama staring into a smartphone or looped in a short GIF or Vine because such images condone and affirm their own fixation with these technologies.” He went on to say, “What people liked about Obama’s relationship to technology is that it was so much like their own. Obama was relatable and with-it. He clutched his smartphone as much as anyone.” Obama’s presence and affinity for technology that seems to mirror our own allows us to identify with him. Over the last eight years, many of u s have come to be more fond of him, more so as a man than the man, thanks not only to the work he’s done as President, but also to his growing presence on social media, as many of the platforms that we use today were either nonexistent or relatively new to users when he first took office.
President-Elect Trump also has a unique social media presence of his own. He uses his infamous Twitter account to denounce the media and those who oppose him publicly–to protect himself from any attacks on his character. He is known and recognized for his lack of filter and professionalism on the Internet, and this is how he appeals to the public–he behaves and presents himself as if he is not the President-Elect of the United States, but rather, a working-class hero for the average joe, a man who has, and continues to work hard to earn all the things with his name on it, just for people who are jealous of his accomplishments to try to depreciate and disparage them; a rebellious, unapologetic, underappreciated champion, like Martin Shkreli, or Kanye West.
And these are all merely images; most of us will never really know Martin Shkreli or Kanye West as something other than “Martin Shkreli” or “Kanye West”. Most of us will never really know Barack Obama or Donald Trump as something other than the president. We just know they exist, and with that in mind, they are more ideas than actual people, as far as the internet is concerned.
However, they are actual people. But social media allows all users, even the president, to manufacture and run with an image for themselves, to identify with their followers and subscribers and garner more support from them through this identification. As the president can continually and openly interact with us on the internet, we gain a sense of familiarity with them in real life, and when shit hits the fan, a lot of us are more likely to side with someone we relate to. In the “democracy” of the United States, we can [maybe] find ourselves in trouble when the president can gain the support of the citizens he leads, based on something that is [potentially] made-up.