what will Snapchat do to politics?

Joanthan Mahler reports that “Snapchat, America’s fastest-growing smartphone app, [has] hired Peter Hamby, a political reporter for CNN, to lead its nascent news division.” Snapchat has more than 1oo million users, including many Americans between the ages of 18 and 31. Mahler quotes President Obama’s former senior strategist Dan Pfeiffer: “There is no harder riddle to solve in politics than reaching young Americans who are very interested in the future of their country but don’t engage with traditional news.” By entering the political news business, Pfeiffer thinks, “Snapchat may have just made it a whole lot easier to solve this riddle.”

Snapchat’s potential to increase young adults’ involvement with politics is one reason that the news about Peter Hamby is interesting. The other reason is an apparent contradiction. Snapchat is famous for extreme brevity. A “Snap” lasts on your phone or other device for no longer than 10 seconds. Hamby, as Mahler notes, wrote a report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center about–as it turns out–the damage that Twitter’s brevity and speed has done to American politics. I quote from the final section of the report:

No one is complaining about the revolutionary gateway to news and information that Twitter provides. But plenty of people in politics are anxious about the way the Twitter conversation thrives on incrementalism, self-involvement and snark.

“It made me think smaller when I should have been thinking bigger,” said Sam Youngman.

“Twitter just gives you an outlet for when you’re bored,” said another reporter who traveled on the Romney plane. “It’s just stupid shit you are not thinking about the ramifications of.”

John Dickerson [Slate writer and CBS Political Director], hardly a new media curmudgeon, called Twitter “a mess for campaign coverage.”

“It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less,” he said.

“I still don’t know how reporters sit and watch a speech, and live tweet a speech, and also have the bandwidth to listen to what candidates are saying, and actually think about it and absorb it so they can right a comprehensive story afterwards,” said Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press.

“I don’t think the Twitter culture helps anybody create great journalism,” said Garrett Haake. “If you’re trying to be the first person that put it out at 140 characters, you’re probably not thinking about the broader context in which you want to present something.”

… Dickerson’s take: “If I were running an actual news division, I would probably ban people from Twitter in some way.” That Dickerson, one of the more forward-thinking and tech-savvy reporters in the business, would even consider such an idea speaks to how frustrated many campaign veterans are with today’s shoot-first-and-update-later style of political journalism.

Hamby’s paper for the Shorenstein Center is the exact opposite of a tweet. It is leisurely, anecdotal, sprinkled with character sketches, and 95 pages long. It doesn’t start with a gripping thesis or end with a sharply defined message but gradually unfolds an argument for the value of long-form journalism through the quoted opinions of others. You could almost say it exemplifies “negative capability,” John Keats’ phrase for not letting one’s own views determine how one sees the world.

Snapchat doesn’t exactly seem built for negative capability. So it is fascinating to speculate how a gifted writer of long-form journalism who decries the trivialization of politics will use this tool to cover the 2016 election.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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