Monday, July 20, 2009

Open (White)house


As we tucked into fish and chips on the beach in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK, a good friend of mine told me excitedly about what had recently happened to his 11-year-old niece. We'll call her Bea.

His sister had moved to the US more than a decade earlier. Which is why, like thousands of other American school children, Bea had received a letter from the President of the United States; Barack Obama. (image courtesy)

That letter included what may have been construed as a bit of a throwaway line: Something to the effect of 'if you're ever in Washington, do drop by to say Hi at the Whitehouse'.

Well Bea's mum and dad thought they'd chance their arm. They don't live sooo far from DC.

And they rocked up at The Whitehouse, handed over the letter and were ushered into a room. Just them. Not a crowd. No appointment. No allotted time.

And after a few minutes?

Barack Obama strode into the room. Chatted, relaxed and unhurried.

Signed autographs. Had his picture taken with Bea (steadfastly NOT with parents, this was all about Bea) and eventually, with no sign of rush, left them in a puff of awe.

Heartwarming?

Charming?

Oh yes. And, I'd hazard a guess, life changing too.

You see my first (self-obsessed?) reaction was to think 'I got invited to No10. Twice. Once by Blair. Second time by Brown.

But the invites weren't random with the seeming generosity of spirit of Obama's.

No, my invitations came because of who I was and the mass media influence-from-the-centre I apparently had at my disposal as a member of the British Society of Magazine Editors.

A broadcast approach to meet-the-people.

Obama's open door policy is different - but arguably more effective in a networked world.

Rather than heap privilege on yet another journalist or broadcaster, Obama has time in his diary to connect with people, any people.

In a networked world, in most parts of the US at least, all nodes are pretty much connected with all nodes. All people with all people.

Obama meets Bea: Not to win her vote (she'll only be 16 the only time he'd need it) but to win the votes of those their meeting will influence.

The Obama/Bea summit becomes a huge social object in Bea's life, and therefore in the lives of all those around her.

Bea will update Facebook (etc), she will share her story where-ever life takes her. Her parents will tell everyone they know and love.

Blown away by their enthusiasm for the story, their friends and family will tell their friends and family.

Some of them will share online, some offline. But share and share they will.
This story has already travelled from Washington to a beach on the easy coast of England.

From DC to DC :-)

And now it has reached you. I hope it still has value for you. The kind you'll want to pass on.

Imagine instead Obama had spent the same amount of time with yet another grumpy journalist. He'd have got some column inches. He'd have had his thoughts edited, packaged, span. And there wouldn't have been a lot of love going round.

No lives would have been changed.

This story puts me in the room with Obama in a way no media interview can touch.

Of course, the old guard will say Obama is wasting his time with 11-year-olds while the NYT is on hold.

But Obama knows, in a networked world, winning one heart beats stealing a million eyeballs.

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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?