The State Of Our (Social-Media) Union Is … Noisy

President Barack Obama is using the State of the Union speech to flex his social-media muscles. The White House rolled out an “enhanced SOTU” on for Obama’s Tuesday night address — and will keep the effort going today and Thursday with follow-up events on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

I decided to dive in last night to see our social-media union in action. I started at the White House’s special State of the Union 2011 page. There was a high-quality live stream of Obama’s speech, which was cool, even though it hung up on my end a few times. The stream featured a PowerPoint-type presentation that ran along side the live speech. The slides were so-so. I found them more distracting than helpful. You’ve seen versions of these simple pie charts, bar graphs and text boxes a million times.


The White House encouraged visitors to visit the administration’s Facebook page to submit comments about the speech and to submit questions for a post-speech Q & A with various government officials. It didn’t take long to see that many of the comment threads had devolved into mindless cheerleading and idiotic namecalling. Here’s a typical batch of comments:

White House on Facebook

Twitter, meanwhile, was awash in chatter. The White House pushed the #SOTU hashtag as a vehicle for submitting questions. The hashtag was a zoo during the speech, with thousands of tweets flooding in every minute. Twitter’s relatively new feature of putting a handful of popular tweets at the top of search results paid off, however, with a few wisecracks.

Twitter sotu

Still, the sheer volume made following #SOTO useless. At one point, I left the #SOTU page up for a few minutes and returned to this ridiculous sight:

SOTU results on Twitter

It was crazy over on YouTube, too. The White House is crowdsourcing questions for a live chat with Obama on Thursday. The effort is commendable — people can submit questions and visitors can vote on which questions they want Obama to answer. But with more than 36 hours to go, more than 60,000 questions had been submitted. That’s just too much noise.

It’s heartening to see the White House dedicating plenty of time and attention to new communication channels. Obama would be foolish to do otherwise, considering what a great job his campaign did using social media to energize backers during the 2008 election.

And seeing tens of thousands of online comments, questions and potshots proves that people are willing to use the platforms during an event as “boring” as a State of the Union speech.

But Tuesday night also demonstrated the limitations of our most popular social media tools and the way we’ve been using them during big events. Some of the fault lies with the platforms themselves. The familiar Facebook status update followed by user comments, for example, works fine when it’s you and ten of your pals cracking wise about a silly picture, but threads get useless when comments reach into the hundreds or thousands. The Twitter hashtag convention can become downright impossible during national events. Submitting a question to Obama’s YouTube live chat is spitting in the wind at this point.

Some of the fault lies with the way we put our social media platforms to work. I’d like to see a player as powerful as the White House try out some ideas during a big event that break the comment/question/vote mold.

Obama spoke Tuesday of our “Sputnik moment” — the challenge to “out innovate, out educate and out build the rest of the world.” Let’s hope the innovation includes new ways to put our social media tools to better use.