Don't be fooled by the White House's use of Vine. The President is not here to answer your questions.
Earlier this week the White House created a Vine account. Among the posted videos so far are clips of Barack Obama gazing approvingly upon a 3D printed arm and "Vator the Space Elevator" at the White House Science Fair.
The associated White House Twitter account has more than 3.8 million followers and produces a stream of opaque nonsense—one-way information fragments that create the impression of activity, while skipping over the reasoning behind each isolated action. Jill Biden left flowers and a pair of her own running shoes in Copley Square, signed with the phrase "Boston Strong." There is a photo of Obama meeting with FBI Director Robert Mueller after an arrest in the Boston Bombings. And a note commemorating the 213th "birthday" of the Library of Congress.
The beauty of both Vine and Twitter is the impossibility of achieving coherence through them. They strip away space for qualifiers, second thoughts, self-criticism, and elaboration.
The new Vine videos seamlessly blend into this hum of social media nothingness. (Note: It was announced today that the White House has also joined Tumblr.) The Obama administration has been praised for its use of the Internet to communicate with the public, using its WhiteHouse.gov site to post weekly video addresses, executive orders, speech transcripts, and fact sheets. The frequency of new information reaffirms the Obama mystique: earnest, pragmatic, and committed to progress and common-sense efficiency above ideology. The stream is free of debate and instead reassures supporters of the White House that they are on the most conscientious and responsible side.
The White House's Vine videos are, likewise, designed to be so safely boring that viewers will never feel like they’ve missed out by not having seen one. Their most important element is not what they communicate—the president patronizing teenagers about how impressive their scientific projects are—but that there is an accessible stream of information from the country's prime authority accessible at any time.
The White House's presence on Twitter is a digital placebo, publicizing the president's participation in the day's trending arguments—not by arguing but by pitching in with empty phrases like "support common-sense steps to reduce gun violence."
The beauty of both Vine and Twitter is the impossibility of achieving coherence through them. They strip away space for qualifiers, second thoughts, self-criticism, and elaboration. They transform human exchange into a long winding coil of autodidactic proclamations published by individuals implicitly defending the worth of their platforms and the rigor of their knowledge. It's the inverse of the Socratic ideal of intelligence in that it is defined by the comfort and familiarity with one's own ignorance.
Twitter is a data-driven company, and it has devised a way of socializing that ensures there is as little ambiguity as possible in its catalog of data, a trick done simply by shortening the available space for thought. With Vine, the power of this structure is amplified by the immediacy of film compared to text, transforming literal statements into a kind of subliminal cinema.
We don't have time to think about what it means that the president is congratulating a teen for having created a part of a cybernetic human with a 3D printer, but accept only the most superficial effects of such an image: The president likes kids, he is interested in technology, and has access to one of the most talked-about new forms of manufacturing.
In a way, it's surprising that it's taken so long for the president to create a Vine presence. It's a platform that is optimally political: all affect and presence with no room for argument or content. A tool can't become truly effective politically until people trust it has uses other than political ones, which has been the genius of Twitter. The brute formulas of social media are ugliest and emptiest when politicians take to it for political purposes. The more one considers the White House's social media presence, the more one realizes the White House is a distant and unreachable thing, a power that depends on remaining aloof. It’s the one voice you can guarantee will always have something to say to you, but which will never have an answer when you have something to say to it.
In their optimal forms, Twitter and Vine would make us less serious, less self-censoring, less reactionary, and less aggressive toward people we disagree with. They should be conversational gutters where the constrictive pressure of always being on-mic and on-the-record is lifted. The White House Twitter operators could publicly debate the rationale behind jaywalking laws, or the continuing hesitance to support Syrian rebels as Bashir Assad begins to use chemical weapons. Vine videos could show the president not in a position of authority, but one of uncertainty, facing opaque political dilemmas instead of approving of iPad-driven coloring apps.
Social media might bring us closer to the fact that national authority is little more than a few hundred besuited men with fundraising operations arguing over whose pet prize should be prioritized. But we don’t live in that world. The White House won’t answer your Twitter comments and its Vine won’t be used to show anything honest about political authority. Instead, it’ll be an anesthetic stream of useless data not meant to encourage argument, debate, or human closeness. It’s becoming the ideal tool for side-takers, people who will follow without ever stopping to think that they’re not being followed in return for their support.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.