Messaging in the Obama age: 140 characters and live theatre

State of the UnionAnyone who watched or listened to President Obama’s State of the Union address will recognize the oratorical flip of the failed manager: “I haven’t delivered what I promised, I’ve created more problems than I’ve solved, but here’s a great list of things I can do in the next three years if you all fall in line uncritically.” That plus the emotional appeals—“Dead children are a bad thing“—and the “spontaneous” audience participation made him appear more like an accomplished stage performer at Ozzfest than the leader of the United States.

This is one of the drawbacks of a post-literate visual communication culture raised on television. Written material requires an active receiver; by contrast electronic media caters to a passive viewer. Visual communication also allows for more emotional influence free of meaning.

Politicians understand this. Hitler and Mussolini certainly did. Any accomplished speaker does. In the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first televised, the discussion afterward focused on the edge the video gave the telegenic Kennedy over the sweaty Nixon with the 5 o’clock shadow.  It foreshadowed a new age; and clearly Nixon and his handlers were not prepared for this new bandwidth.

The focus on imagery and increasingly brief emotional content makes it easier to manipulate post-literate viewers. Social media adds to this instant manipulation. For example, Twitter’s limitation of one-way, 140 characters as well as Facebook, Reddit, or any other sites or message boards vaunt the one-shot slogan. This is part of what Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher of communication theory, meant by his statement “the medium is the message”.

Text messaging, or even posting here, has the disadvantage of reduced bandwidth. The intended receivers don’t have tone of voice, body language, or facial expression to help them get the full meaning to the message. However, this lack of physicality is not detrimental in every case. There’s no need for strutting, pigeon-like head bobbing, the lift of an eyebrow, hands on hips, or a lifted chin for communication to be universally understood by every similarly literate receiver regardless of their line of sight, emotional state or cultural background.

Yet, when physical communication is used—especially by a professional—it can effectively influence an unsophisticated audience. That said, if the medium is indeed the message, then President Obama’s cynical performance at the State of the Union really was like Ozzfest. Only not as entertaining.
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Rottman is a frustrating engineer and frustrated writer who prefers cats to dogs and has, despite indications to the contrary, never owned a Rottweiler. A conservative with Libertarian leanings, he believes people should be left alone to do as they please along the lines of the old statement “Your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.”

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