Yesterday, following what was a very serious and thought provoking interview with Buzzfeed News that covered such hot button topics as Russia and Ukraine, Hillary Clinton’s potential candidacy to replace him, Kayla Mueller, transgender rights, and race in modern America, President Obama also took a few moments to star in a video for the website’s ongoing series.
Much like his appearance last year on Zach Galifianakis’ cult web series “Between Two Ferns,” Obama was using a popular forum to reach out and encourage young Americans to sign up for his health care plan. And much like last year’s appearance there have been accusations that Obama is diminishing the office by appearing in something so “trivial” and honestly, just down right goofy.
There are two points that the critics miss here. First the real and important place that Buzzfeed has taken up in the media landscape and with millennials in particular, and secondly, the degree to which lame duck Obama simply doesn’t care what those old school critics think anymore.
First a few words on Buzzfeed, and their video production strategy specifically. Though founded in 2006, it is really within the last 2-3 years that the site has come to prominence. The hiring of Ben Smith certainly added editorial muscle that enabled them to move past being simply a listicle site -- their access to Obama is proof of the credibility they’ve attained.
Meanwhile, in the past year or so, Buzzfeed’s video production has amped up considerably. Advertising dollars in the media game have moved disproportionately to video ads, as users have learned to ignore standard issue banner ads, and more and more traffic goes mobile. Realizing that, most of their viewers don’t actually want to watch a video…they just came for pictures of cats eating hummus, or whatever….
Buzzfeed’s solution was to turn their video production staff into the stars of the video. Their recurring series, with titles like “Things Everyone Does When They Are Home Alone” or “Things Boyfriends Do That Drive Their Girlfriends Crazy” all feature little vignettes starring their (admittedly, young and attractive) video staff as the actors. They’ve become mini-online stars with fan followings and invented romances in the minds of the readers. Each video runs less than 10 minutes (and usually less than 3), and it has enabled Buzzfeed to drive millions of video views while everyone else beats their head against the wall.
The video the president appeared in is in the style of these productions. The humor comes from replacing the awkward hipsters of Buzzfeed, with the most powerful man in the world.
The problem for both Obama and for Buzzfeed is an old guard who is desperately offended by the mixture of the serious and the comedic. While the Fox News crowd pines for the King of Jordan in his military fetish gear, here’s President O-bummer acting like a teenager. But for the audience Obama is trying to reach, they don’t see a problem with such a mixture and neither does he.
While more established media outlets can turn up their nose and say, “Please, you’re expecting me to take a site that runs cat pictures seriously?” a younger audience, for a variety of reasons, does not see this as a problem.
As the first generation of people weaned on the Internet take their place in the work force, they are exceptionally indifferent to where they get information in a way that baffles media organization. With sites such as Buzzfeed, and the increasing prominence of the Twitter feed, viewers might easily click on a link to “10 Ways Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You” and a hard hitting expose on Vermont’s heroin problem and never realize, or even particularly care that they were both on the same site. All they know is that they were both recommended to them by a trusted referrer, and they want to read both. And because millennials are the type of people that can be equally interested in both, they have no problem with a website (or a president) who offers both the serious and the frivolous.
To a certain degree, the difference in the reaction is purely generational. To an older generation, there is a way “The President” is supposed to look and act. You could see this in the coverage of Mitt Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign, in the way that people often commented that he “looked Presidential.” But to a younger generation, a generation that has seen a massive financial collapse due to corporate malfeasance, that has seen Bernie Madoff or Jack Abramoff, patrician men in suits aren’t heroes -- they’re the villains. An older generation sees respectability, a younger one sees a façade of respectability hiding dark secrets.
And this is particularly true of televised news. A recent piece in The Atlantic, pointed out the way in which the traditional, 24 hour televised news cycle is going the way of variety shows and radio dramas. The median age viewer for MSN is 60, CNN hits 62, and Fox leads the pack with a median age of 68. As Gen X-ers hit middle age they (Ok fine, WE) are not going to decide to watch televised news en mass. My generation turned to a comedian to help us process the horrors reflected in the news. The next one is turning to the web, and there is no putting that genie back in the bottle.
To be fair, Presidents using entertainment and technology to appeal to youth and humanize the man, is hardly unique to this generation. The televised Nixon v Kennedy debate is often cited as one of the reasons for Kennedy’s victory. Nixon having learned the lesson famously appeared on Laugh In and at the Grand Ole Opry where he played piano and sang “God Bless the USA” (both of which he’s shockingly good at).
Sure, Bill Clinton had his sax on Arsenio, Reagan had his jelly beans and Star Wars references, but no President has worked the generation gap like Obama, who truly has been an Internet President. He knows that this generation, prefers a leader who knows that “the king is but a man,” not an autocrat or a martinet, but the kind of guy who makes goofy faces in the mirror when he thinks no one is looking. They know that having a sense of humor is not mutually exclusive from being a serious person.
Increasingly, as the clucking grows louder, the reaction seems to be less fueled in any reputational damage to the office of the presidency and more the jilted yelp of an older generation, which has monopolized both the spotlight and the microphone for so long that they don’t know how to react when the storyline changes.
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