It's not too often that the depths and complexity of politics and government cross paths with a website hallmarked by its wealth of viral entertainment and comedy. But on January 22nd, 2015, exactly that happened: President Obama was Interviewed by three of YouTube's most followed creators, Hank Green, GloZell Green, and Bethany Mota. The interview was live-streamed on YouTube globally, and has since garnered over 3 million views. But even before the event took place, those with negative image of YouTube as a place for comedy with no capacity for serious discourse criticized the potential and idea of the YouTube Asks Obama event, asking what a group of gamers and comedians had to offer in the realm of politics. In my opinion, the interview itself well surpassed anyone's expectations, and did far more than just reach its goal of making current issues relevant and visible to YouTube's younger audience. The stars and the president discussed issues ranging from bullying and college education to Boko Haram and racial inequality, and the answers were just as insightful as the questions themselves. In fact, in Bethany Mota's portion of the interview, one particular answer from the president made me think. When the president was asked about how politics can be more relevant to the younger generations, he replied:
Politics is just how we organize ourselves in a society. How do we make decisions about how we're going to live together? Young people care about how college is paid for … at some point, there were politicians who said we should start colleges. If you care about an issue like making sure that gays, lesbians, and transgender persons are treated fairly, laws on the books can make sure that does happen. But those laws only pass when politics allows those laws to pass…There's no decision in our lives that isn't in some way touched by the laws that we have, and we're lucky we live in a democracy where our voice matters. Sometimes we get turned off by all the noise and yelling on the TV, but that's not what it has to be.
It's an undeniable fact that less and less of the younger generations are (generally) interested in the issues in politics and government. They seem far less interesting or relevant than talking about the next iPhone, watching Let's Play's on YouTube's gaming channels, or reading up on the reviews of the latest Avengers sequel. But the president brought up a thought-provoking point, that politics is more relevant to everyone than it appears. April 17th, for example, was this year's annual Day of Silence, organized to raise awareness of the silence against anti-LGBT bullying and their lack of voice in many places. Participation in that event was a form of participating in politics – it raised awareness of the issue, and make clear that there were people in our communities who cared about it. It was, in the best sense of the word, a political movement.
In more recent times, just last weekend, marches in Baltimore celebrated the charges against six police officials ruled responsible for the murder of a black man while in police custody. The “victory” march celebrated the changes in attitude regarding similar cases, and the visible impacts of the recent protests in Baltimore and elsewhere. The Baltimore protests was another event with ties to politics that probably seemed more interesting, precisely because they appeared more relevant to our daily lives and the people around us. In other words, the word “politics” has developed a dangerous connotation that has less to do with what it actually is, and more to do with how the media paints its portrait. This fact applies regardless of which side of the political spectrum you belong to – the relevance of government to our everyday lives is far greater than some of us make it out to be, and that's precisely why our misconception is flawed.
But while there is a misunderstanding about politics from the part of the younger audience of the media, I don't think the government has done a particularly stellar job of making their discussions relevant to the younger audience. The YouTube Asks Obama event was a rare exception to the rule, and as the nation turns to the Internet and social media for an outlet for their voices and interactions, politics still remains mostly chained to the media of the last generation, on televised broadcast and newspapers. There is a visible gap between where the voices of the people are being amplified and where government is listening and speaking. While the average American Tweets about his complaints, Instagrams his protests, and makes a YouTube video about gay rights, those outlets aren't reaching where they need to go, because government doesn't exist with enough presence in the social Internet. The social web is powerful, and we've gotten a hint of what people's voices can do with 2012's campaign against Joseph Kony, then again with the overwhelming response to racial profiling since last fall. But while most of the younger generation isn't tuning into government with enthusiasm, I think a part of the blame can go to the fact that the government hasn't reached out the the audience that it needs to speak to because the Internet still remains a place dominated by individual voices, without enough political ears.
There is a separation between the ears of the politicians and the voices of the people, and the problem is twofold. First, the rising, younger generation isn't as attentive to the issues in politics because we often fail to make connections between the issues in government and the issues relevant to our lives. Second, the government has fallen behind in reaching the modern, American people who speak their thoughts on the Internet rather than tune into broadcast for the news. What's interesting is that the YouTube Asks Obama event was an amazing way for both of these issues to be solved, even for a moment, because the community of YouTube does have a solution to both of these issues. The leaders on YouTube – the creators – speak as people, as equals to the audience, about the issues that are relevant to the audience, in a way that they can understand. There isn't a gap between what the creators talk about and what the audience cares about, because that gap would make YouTube's vital communities fail. And I think that's a good reference for where the American politics stands today with the younger, online generation, and where they need to be. Politics is, if I may, an eternal podcast, and it's up to the people to tune in and make connections that are relevant to their individual life stories, but the government should also do its job to make their conversations more relevant and easier to listen to for the audience.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, The miracle of trust.
Have a comment or response? You can email me.