The fallacy that social media platforms such as Facebook provide “two-way communication,” or a “virtual dialogue” is getting a day in the sun today, following President Obama’s “Town Hall at Facebook headquarters yesterday. While on the surface, media enthusiasts and modern-day communications professionals choose to see Facebook as the future of interactive social media due to live streaming capabilities, instant messaging, Q&A mechanisms, and the ability to cull an audience of thousands, yesterday’s Town Hall event proved that nothing beats a physically present audience.
As the SFGate (SF Chronicle) article declared, “Despite the promise that President Obama’s first Facebook town hall would open a new level of two-way communication with his constituents, social-networking technology didn’t add much to the conversation.”
In all, the President answered eight questions, a few of which were asked by the physically present audience of Facebook employees, and ignored hundreds which were posted by the thousands of virtual attendees. As the SFGate article quotes, “Cynthia Spurling posted: ‘What a joke Facebook! So glad you had this town hall for your employees. The Ask Question button is a joke!’”
As a President of the people, and as a politician campaigning for re-election, why would he do such a thing?
Well, how much time do you have? How about:
A) A politician is always trained to play to the flesh and blood right in front of him or her, because he can see their eyes, their expressions, and he or she is trained to digest that physical information, as an orator, to sway an audience one way or another. But hell, the normal human reaction is to play to the live audience right in front of you, so that’s not saying much.
B) The physical audience was a group of employees of Facebook, a cutting edge technology company that employs young, top tier people from all over the country, meaning most of them are equipped with at least a bachelor’s degree, if not a master’s. And historically, studies have suggested that a higher level of attained education generally correlates to a more liberal standpoint among Americans.
C) Facebook HQ is located in California, a very liberal state. Thus the President is keenly aware that the average person in the room will be more aligned with his own political standpoints and the standpoints of his party. Knowing that, and knowing he can field their softball questions, why would he cater to the wildcard attendees from other states?
Saying all this, you probably won’t believe it, but I should disclose that I am a big Obama fan. I mean, a BIG OBAMA FAN. But this is just common sense. What I find interesting about it from the communication point of view is not the choices that were made by his team to keep him on the “safe” side of rhetoric, but how surprised people seem to be that he basically ignored the online audience.
Yes, we have become a very virtualized population of individuals, often more comfortable with interacting with screens and mobile devices when given the choice between that and a real person. But the actual act of speaking publicly has not changed much. A skilled orator thrives off of the energy he or she receives back from an audience, and the computer, iPad, iPhone, or Android screens don’t offer any love back.
As I’m wrapping this up, I need to mention what a theater professor of mine once said. This has stayed with me every day of my life. He told us, “don’t ever agree to appear on stage with babies, small children or animals. They will upstage you ever time. The difference is their authenticity of emotion, of movement, of reaction. The second you step on stage with them, you have already lost the audience’s attention to their absolutely authentic behavior, which no actor can match.”
How does this correlate to the fallacy of interactivity, as proven by yesterday’s Facebook Town Hall? The same rule, it would seem, applies to “don’t ever agree to attend a webcast or live streaming event if you know there will be people in the room, physically, with the performer or speaker.” As the virtual audience, you will always lose. The physical audience will upstage you every time.