The age of social and the rise of @POTUS

Amid the controversy and rancor that has marked the 2016 US election, the machinery of administration and government has had to carry on serving the public and making sure the wheels of democracy keep rolling. Part of the housekeeping has involved preparing for the transfer of social media accounts from the Obama administration to the incoming administration.

As part of this handover the incoming president will take over the presidential Twitter handle @POTUS on January 20. Various other Twitter accounts, as well as Facebook and Instagram pages, will also be taken over by the new president’s team.

In the wake of this news, it’s worth looking at the massive growth in numbers and influence of social media in areas like politics as well as business.

Remarkably, the @POTUS account has only existed since May 19, 2015.

Before that, however, President Barack Obama had been tweeting under his own name with the handle @BarackObama, an account which was run by his campaign committee, Organizing for Action.

Young, hip and media-savvy, Obama knew all about the power of social media, and has widely been acknowledged as the first president of the social age. Super venture capitalist and startup guru Marc Andreessen saw firsthand how Obama bolted from obscurity in 2008 to defeat his older, more experienced and higher profile rivals Hillary Clinton (for the Democratic Party nomination) and John McCain (in the presidential race).

Obama had requested a meeting with Andreessen in early 2007, as he was starting to ramp up his audacious run for the White House. As Andreessen retold the story to the New York Times, Obama impressed him as being “clearly super smart and very entrepreneurial, a person who saw the world and the status quo as malleable”.

Obama had glimpsed the power of social media networks, especially barely-there-yet platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

He was able to tap into growing social media networks, especially the army of young voters usually alienated from the political process, and disrupt the traditional campaign models being used by Clinton and McCain, both to raise money and to get his message out to voters.

As Andreessen puts it:

“I think it is very significant that he was the first post-boomer candidate for president,” Mr. Andreessen said. “Other politicians I have met with are always impressed by the web and surprised by what it could do, but their interest sort of ended in how much money you could raise. He was the first politician I dealt with who understood that the technology was a given and that it could be used in new ways.”

Andreessen said three really vital things in that statement:

  • If you look at social media purely for its bottom-line value, you’re missing the point;
  • Technology is a given, it’s not going away, and its influence will only continue to grow; and
  • Tech is flexible and can be used in new and disruptive ways when people take a creative approach.

This was way back in 2008, when Facebook had only 100 million monthly active global users. That figure is now 1.7 billion. Obama obviously saw something worthwhile in social media’s reach and influence.

Twitter has gone from 30 million active monthly users in 2010 to 317 million in 2016. Not quite the same phenomenal growth as Facebook, but impressive still.

Here’s another simple but staggering statistic about the age of social. In 2005, only 8% of adult internet users in the US were using social network sites. In 2015, that figure was 76%.

Politics, just like business, is symbiotically tied to the technologies and media of its time. Obama understood enough about the community-building power of the internet and the reach of social media to use it to build his political brand and engage with followers.

This year’s presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been fought as much on social media as it has been in the realm of traditional media. As evidenced by the transitioning of the presidential suite of social media accounts, social media is now part of the machinery of government and democracy.

And on the off chance you haven’t woken up to this fact yet: it’s part of the machinery of business and commerce too.

Fi Bendall is chief executive of The Bendalls Group, a business that leads STRATEGY : ADVOCACY : MOBILE delivering the business acumen to drive effective positive results in a disruptive economy for the C-suite. Fi has recently won a Westpac/AFR 2015 100 Women of Influence award. 


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