Fast Company

State of the Union, the Digital Party

Did you watch the State of the Union on television, old-school style? The real party was online. Photos! Infographics! Salmon! Here’s a deeper look.

If you have a television and you’re a civic-minded sort, you probably plonked down in front of CNN (or the networks, or Fox, or the like) last night and watched President Obama’s State of the Union address (and the Republican response, or maybe even the Tea Party response) old-school style--on the boob tube with a remote in one hand and a beer in the other. 

But if TV was your only game last night, you missed out. The real party was online. It was a massive demonstration of how the conversation in politics is shifting, from a one-way affair controlled jointly by politicans and the media, to both a two-way dialogue between pols and constituents and a many-to-many free-for-all between any and all who care to dive in. 

Here’s a sampling of what went on.

Both C-SPAN and PBS's News Hour broadcast the addresses over the Internet—C-SPAN via its Facebook page, and PBS via Ustream. 

The broadcasts themselves were probably the same as what appeared on TV, but as with any such events over the Internet these days, the livestreams included places for viewers to comment, via Twitter, Facebook, or other social networks. That was interesting, but even more interesting was…

… the White House’s website. Obama’s team apparently realizes it’s a PowerPoint world, and that means charts and data and URLs and pictures. The guardians of tradition would probably keel over if Obama were to walk up to the podium in the House of Representatives and, Ross Perot-like, pull out a slide deck. But online he can do just that. Or rather his team can. And they did. Alongside video of the President speaking, the site matched the President’s words with data and images on everything from clean energy plans, school performance, and the country’s gross domestic product to how regulation of salmon were divided up among two government departments (top).

Also, online? Fact-checking. Traditionally, we’ve had to wait for the networks’ post-game shows before anyone starts to dissect the accuracy of various statements made by the president or the opposition. But last night, the Sunlight Foundation—in partnership with The Huffington Post, National Journal, CQ Roll Call, and the Center for Public Integrity—posted real-time fact-checking during the course of the addresses. Also doing fact-checking was…

… Speaker of the House John Boehner’s press team, who live-blogged the event with a series of posts title “SOTU FACT”, in which they deconstructed various of Obama’s claims.

But the real party was on Twitter. #SOTU, #StateoftheUnion and "Union Address" all zoomed to the top of Trending Topics, and for about an hour, many Twitter users’ feeds were bursting with political commentary.

It was like being in the middle of a wild, raucus, smart, and funny party. So much so that some didn’t want it to end.

For entertainment value, comedian Andy Borowitz and recently departed MSNBC host Keith Olbermann tossed out incessant zingers eventually launching into a two-way #twitterwar.

The unwashed masses weren’t the only ones tweeting. Apparently some of the Senators and Congressmen kept up the patter during the President’s speech, as did…

… the President himself.

(Of course, it's clear someone on the President's staff was tweeting on his behalf, as Obama did not appear to have his notorious BlackBerry in hand as he spoke to the nation. But it's possible Rep. Paul Broun, of Georgia, was in fact tapping away from the House floor--he certainly seemed to indicate he would in a tweet earlier Tuesday.)

Following the State of the Union, various members of the President’s policy teams participated in a live online panel, taking questions via Twitter and Facebook…

… as well as from a small live audience—with Harold and Kumar actor (and former White House Office of Public Engagement staffer) Kalpen Modi (better known as “Kal Penn”) managing the mike.

The White House panel actually started during the Republican response, which seemed a bit disrespectful, but it was also symbolic of the fact that, given that we’re no longer bound by a single channel of communication, events no longer have to unfold in a single chronological progression.

The Republican response for its part was broadcast online via C-SPAN, PBS, and Boehner’s Facebook page.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann also gave a response on behalf the Tea Party. But while her speech was broadcast on CNN and other television channels, it didn’t seem to make it online. (It may have been meant to go out over the Tea Party Express website, but the video feed there didn't seem to be working.)

Meanwhile, Republicans matched the White House’s social-net-savvy by lining up a passel of representatives, including Peter Roskam, of Illinois (below), to record video responses to tweets from regular folks, and posting them on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s YouTube channel (a la Old Spice Guy, minus the towel).

Had enough yet? Hope not, because there’s more. Thinking out of the box, the White House is turning the State of the Union into a four-day affair. Sure, when you have to rely on television for distribution, all you can expect them to fork over is a single evening. But if you’ve got a direct line to the people, as you do with the Interwebs, you can keep the party going as long as you’d like. For a complete list of events the White House has planned over the coming days, see the State of the Union page on whitehouse.gov.

Read more State of the Union coverage

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Follow me on Twitter, or email me.

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4 Comments

  • Daniel Miers

    Uggg...Make it stop! Technology is turning our lives into a series of micro-battles to be won and lost in real time. There is no long view, there is only the current scoreboard. This is all manipulative small ball with no vision. If Joe Wilson had simply tweeted "You Lie!" instead of shouting out last year, he'd be participating in the modern dialog. Bah. We have gone too far and lost sight of the prize - leading the nation to a future that broadly benefits Americans.

  • Shannon

    This administration did a better job of utilizing social media than many big commercial brands! The fact that the President promoted social chatter across the aisle also shows his deep commitment to creating and nurturing a productive dialogue in our Nation. The keen and deliberate use of the hashtag #SOTU on Twitter allowed everyone to participate. This is exactly why so many other countries are using Twitter as a method of protest, and a place to have a voice, where they wouldn't otherwise. Well done! -S. Bedell

  • Miguel Reynolds

    Its a start of a revolution! Obama's administration shows how well they master the new interactive media. This is as example of what we can, fortunately, expect to improve our democracies - for the first time in humakind, men has real influence in their communities. It gives me hope that we can expect a better future...
    M. Reynolds
    www.globalbusinessbrokers.eu