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.