What happens on social media when people stop being polite and start getting real? Maybe we realize that's what we should have been doing all along. Tuesday's New York Times profile on Joe Lhota, MTA chief, seems to bolster some theories that have been percolating in our time of ever-encroaching, ever the more personal and connected social media. Particularly as to how that social media can intersect with the lives of politicians and public figures and even bolster them. We've seen this with writers, with artists, with celebrities: We're kind of done, it seems, with the sponsored, censored, scripted stuff, and instead prefer real, honest, authentic truths and slices of life. We want genuine banter, even if it's just banter. We want the real deal. Don't couch things, don't tell us your Retweets aren't endorsements, just be you—for better or worse, even if you're some kind of bigwig. Maybe, especially if you are.
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Take, for instance, Barack Obama's recent foray onto Reddit, where he did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) and answered, if not everything, numerous questions without editing or apparent review, words coming straight from the president's fingers to the eyes of millions. There were typos, even! This is the president unscripted, the one we want to see, and even if not everyone was totally happy with what came out of it, it was an unprecedented breaking-the-barriers kind of reach-out to a social media savvy public. Compare that to JFK's "I personally am the antithesis of a politician" candidness revealed to Ben Bradlee and James M. Cannon after Kennedy announced he was running for president in 1960. He was honest, too—off the cuff, not trying to fit the stereotype of "a politician," not trying to sell anything. "I think I just happen to fit now," he said.
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Similarly, the social media endeavors of the Obamas (there's that AMA, and both Michelle and Barack do personally tweet, though their accounts are largely run by staff) fit where we are now in a particular way. These are "humanizing" techniques, even if they are digital—social media presents so many ways to interact seemingly individually with constituents, many of whom know the posers from the real deal almost implicitly. It's why people like Newark, New Jersey mayor Cory Booker—who tweets nearly ceaselessly, interspersing personal anecdotes about his love for coffee with inspirational quotes and a number where he can be reached if citizens need help—attract millions of followers who are also fans.
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We see this trend, too, in the Times piece today by Matt Flegenheimer, in which he explores the Twitter life of Lhota, who runs New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority. We're talking about one of the most powerful figures in city government, the guy who oversees not only our commutes but the majority of the transportation in the city. The MTA can be pretty tight-lipped and, like any governmental body, difficult to extract quotes or non statement-form commentary from. Yet here's Lhota, tweeting all on his own; there's no intern hired out to do that job for him, no proofreader. Like Obama doing his AMA (and like all of us, on Twitter), Lhota has some typos and makes mistakes. But that's almost charming, as is the lack of filter: There's no one to censor him or tell him what not to say. Even his Twitter profile—Native New Yorker, Chairman & CEO - MTA, former NYC Deputy Mayor, investment banker, 9-11 cancer survivor, life-long Yankees fan, Hoya Saxa—is free from that cagey caveat, "RTs are not endorsements."
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Flegenheimer writes, "In a city of many prominent officials, meddlesome reporters and vigilant public relations officers charged with preventing the first group from speaking out of turn to the second, Mr. Lhota’s Twitter account stands apart."
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Recently we discussed the underbrag—a no-holds-barred admittance, even celebration, of culpability in one's more questionable behaviors—and while Lhota doesn't go that far, he showcases a growing social media trend: uncensored, unsponsored, actual thoughts, from the proverbial horse's mouth. Sometimes these thoughts do appear to toe the line of the underbrag. As Flegenheimer writes, "He has mistyped a Yankees score and blamed the error on an evening of drinking. ('It was sauvignon blanc,' he clarified this week. 'I find chardonnay too heavy.')" He uses capital letters liberally, he admits he might be “generationally too old to really be on Twitter,” and he tweets freely of the weird and funny—tidbits completely unrelated to his job, even mundane, like, "Who knew? A humpback whale off of Rockaway. Amazing."
The underbrag is the opposite of the brag, but better, more believable and amusing, and maybe just like that the honest underpromotion is the new form of promotion. Lhota may be the perfect new model of the way we like our social media now, a combination of the serious and silly and interesting, but most of all, always real and never forcing an insincere self-promotion down our timelines. Though Lhota says Twitter requires restraint, that restraint is nearly invisible to the viewer, and that's what we like. As Flegenheimer explains, you don't even need a parody account when you have him tweeting about cans of Paris air and a guy who microwaved his undies, and, sort of adorably, he also likes to get @s: "'I had 36 mentions,' he said gleefully after speaking recently at a forum at the Plaza Hotel."
All that is incredibly social-media charming, but his Tweet in response to praise over the Times piece may say it best:
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