When the Obama administration launched its version of Whitehouse.gov, it promised unprecedented openness. But the site's contact page restricted letters to 500 characters. Is that enough to argue complex ideas effectively? After being criticized for the limit, it was expanded. Even so, the Whitehouse.gov feedback form is not really 'open' at all. The Obamagram responds to this uncertainty about how democracy should be formatted in an age of networking and digital media. An 'open letter' is a letter, often critical, addressed to a person or group but intended for publication. The Obamagram puts a new twist on the open letter by making it anonymous and giving it a rigid form. The orginal, round, arbitrary number 500 is restored as an exact 500 character requirement.
   In the 18th century Samuel Richardson wrote several epistolary novels (novels comprised of letters). One entitled Clarissa exceeded 1500 pages. Thomas Paine's arguments for independence from Great Britain in Common Sense — a text notable for its plain language — extended to nearly 108,000 characters.
   Today the tendency to write lengthy letters has been been largely supplanted by brief messages typed into tiny, awkward keypads on mobile phones. Mr. Obama himself has made no secret of his dependence on his mobile messaging device. So it is little surprise that Obama or his staff felt that a limiting online letters to the president to 500 characters would be reasonable.
   In 1995 the Clinton administration launched Whitehouse.gov and even provided "president@whitehouse.gov" as a contact for the president.1 But times have changed and the volume of spam has risen enormously. President Obama's email address is known only to a few people, and the problem of managing a deluge of feedback has become paramount. The new custodians of Whitehouse.gov evoke mid-1990s optimism about the Information Superhighway with their promises of greater openness. Where do the letters go, though? Perception management rather than idealism is the foundation of this feedback system, which acts like a pressure release valve. As Loren Baritz has shown in his history of applied psychology (Baritz, 1960), the mere pretense of listening to grievances can be effective in curbing organized resistance. The stagecraft of the Obama election campaign now informs the unfolding drama of public relations with its enhanced new media techniques. Is it just style over substance?
   Where are these curious tranformations of literacy and democracy headed? When faced with resistance to Bush's 'War on Terrorism' Colin Powell turned to Charlotte Beers, a veteran of forty years in American advertising who had led campaigns to sell syrup and pancakes while running prestigious Madison Avenue firms. As Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy she implemented communications strategies that were criticized as exceedingly slick. She resigned. Perhaps the 'Muslim World' that she was meant to persuade would have been more receptive to clear, reasoned arguments rather than impressionistic montages about American values?
   Without a doubt the ways the public communicates with government in the information age will continue to evolve, and likewise public relations strategies will continue to incorporate new media trends. With the decline of newspapers, and the rise of sound bites and instant messaging, comes this new form of presidential communication. Your skills for communicating with written words may be uncommon in a few decades. Here is your chance to explore the potential of the format du jour, the 500 character open letter to the president of the United States.

Compose your Obamagram

500 letters remain

Tips to Compact a Message

  • Avoid old-fashioned formalities

    Dear Mr. President,

    Sincerely, Your Name Here

  • Choose shorter idioms

    Whoever said "X" didn't know anything about Y
    Z's ignorant

  • Abbreviate

    government and Internal Revenue Service
    gov't & IRS

  • Avoid nuance

    Although I appreciate your desire to get new legislation passed, I really feel that Bush and Cheney should be prosecuted for their crimes
    W&Dick r war criminals

  • Write without spaces like medieval monk

    What were you thinking appointing Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary?

Tips to Confine a Thought

  • Watch lots of TV
  • Read only when necessary
  • Avoid "serious" matters
  • Never ask questions
  • Have faith in authority figures

Apr 8, 2016

Confronted with news of the Panama Papers, Mr. Pre
sident, you spoke about how laws are failing to re
gulate the use of shell corporations to evade taxe
s. Yet it was you who pushed through the Panama Tr
ade Promotion Agreement, which like "free trade" a
greements before it, is laced with provisions ghos
t written by lobbyists. Instead of outlawing unacc
ountable shell corporations, your trade agreement
made it almost impossible to prosecute tax cheats.
It was you that made the law that is failing us!!

Oct 4, 2015

One Day After Warning Russia of Civilian Casualtie
s, the U.S. Bombs a Hospital in Afghanistan. This
comes only days after you condemned the way the Un
ited States ignores gun control & allows mass shoo
tings every few months. You may hold a Nobel Prize
, sir, but you are a hypocrite. It is under your l
eadership that civilians are slaughtered by drone
and by high tech weaponry. You crow about ending w
ars & yet you continue to bomb in both Afghanistan
and in Iraq. Your actions speak louder than words

Jan 21, 2014

Mr Obama would have Americans believe that he want
s to reform the covert spying programs uncovered b
y Edward Snowden, calling press conferences to mak
e a show of supposed reform. But just as Total Inf
ormation Awareness morphed into secret NSA program
s, the truth is that the administration is rearran
ging the deck chairs while maintaining the status
quo. As NSA chief Clapper has said, the national '
discussion' prompted by Snowden's revelations need
ed to happen. So how can he remain a public enemy?

May 5, 2012

The President promised in his State of the Union t
hat the hydraulic fracking gas drilling boom would
not come at the expense of public health. Yet whe
n it came time to put that promise into action, th
e public got served a glass of toxic water. Since
when is it good policy to let the gas industry pum
p whatever chemicals it likes into the water table
, leaving the public with no recourse until after
the pollution can no longer be prevented? Would Ob
ama's girls enjoy fracking toxins in their water?!