World leaders Obama, pope tap into power of the Internet

The Baltimore Sun

There was a striking parallel last week when two of the world's most famous leaders - Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI - unveiled new presences on the Internet.

Minutes before Obama took the oath of office as the 44th U.S. president, his people pushed the button on a revamped, edgier Web site for It came with video links, a blog and a home page so sleek and styled it could have come from an upscale retailer. Obama surrounded himself early on with people who grasped the Internet as a powerful communications tool, and it was immediately clear he planned to carry over his online strengths from his campaign to the office of the presidency. On Saturday, the president's first weekly address, to promote his economic aid plan, came in the form of a video sent to the White House Web site and YouTube.

The pontiff also made headlines last week when the Vatican announced it was launching a channel on YouTube, Pope Benedict praised the benefits of social networking, although he strongly cautioned about "obsessive" use.

Many people who heard the news probably shared a similar thought: If the 2,000-year-old papacy is on YouTube, shouldn't I get with it? The dozen videos of papal speeches on the site the first few days drew a couple hundred views each and few, if any, comments, but it wasn't meant to compete with music videos.

World leaders communicating directly with the public, without the filter of the media, is seen now not as threatening, but as a logical advance.

It was not that way 25 years ago when Apple Computer's famed "1984" Super Bowl commercial depicted a future in which we'd be ruled by leaders projected on a big screen and we'd need to use the personal computer ourselves to break free.

Apple's ad to pique interest in its new 128-kilobyte Macintosh marked the beginning of the personal-computer revolution and also created the marketers' Mardi Gras that the Super Bowl has become. (That Macintosh, by the way, cost $2,500 then - or roughly $5,000 in 2009 dollars - and was several thousand times slower than virtually any computer you're now using.)

The future that Apple projected, even the product it was pitching, most people couldn't conceive of. A computer seemed about as necessary in 1984 as the automobile seemed to a horse-and-buggy society nearly a century earlier. Now, many people - including Blackberry-addicted heads of state - feel anxious if they're out of touch with their Facebook or e-mail accounts for any period.

As the Apple 1984 commercial portrayed with Orwellian imagery, computers are empowering the public, not just its leaders. And we began to get a glimpse of it last week, when blog traffic about all things Obama, predictably, was the highest it's been since Election Day and continued to run heavy days after Inauguration Day.

Obama's icy reaction on his first day to Vice President Joe Biden's lame attempt at a joke about the botched oath of office recitation by Chief Justice John Roberts drew more than 100,000 hits on YouTube, and gained the new president a few new fans impressed with his "post-partisan" approach.

"An absolutely amazing moment," said the blog "One of the things this little story did for me was helped me realize that though I might not agree with everything President Obama does ... I already respect him for being the person who he says he is."

The fashion choices of first lady Michelle Obama could fill a good chunk of the Internet alone, with more than 4 million blog references. Even Aretha Franklin's hat at the inauguration ceremony was an object of immense fascination online: The gay-culture blog "joemygod" noted that its critique of the hat Franklin wore to sing at the inaugural was its most popular post in five years. (One respondent to the blog Photoshopped the hat in various places, including atop the US Airways jet floating in the Hudson.)

The commercial Internet evolved during Bill Clinton's presidency, and blogs and video-streaming came along during George W. Bush's. But Obama's is the 2.0 computer presidency - the first one in which the team in the White House and the public it serves have a comfort level, even a craving, with online communication.

Inauguration Day was one of the busiest days ever for the Internet. Traffic doubled on such established news sites as CBS and ABC, according to the research firm Nielsen Online. And while traffic abated some after the drama of last week, it's likely to remain strong because of the global fascination with Obama, his family and the new age he represents.

That peculiar, long-ago Super Bowl commercial probably will be replayed a lot this week. Its depiction of a future where the leaders and the masses both seek greater control through information technology is becoming clearer now.

Sunday, by the way, the 1984 Apple commercial was the second-most linked-to video online, according to - behind only Obama's Saturday address.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad