@POTUS: Twitter Is a Future Biographers’ Best Friend

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 10.07.40 AM

President Obama recently joined Twitter, and his feed is already providing some insights into the president that might have been unavailable to the public in his first six years in office. His first tweet read: “Hello, Twitter! It’s Barack. Really! Six years in, they’re finally giving me my own account.” Not that interesting to be sure (like so much of Twitter), but subsequent tweets have weighed in on subjects as diverse as gay marriage and peas in guacamole. (FYI, he’s for the former, opposed to the latter.)

Soft stuff so far, but the account bears watching, as it could prove useful for future presidential biographers. At a minimum, the account is a window into a president’s likes and dislikes. President Obama started following the Blackhawks, White Sox, and the Bulls, but not the Cubs – which was of course noted by Cubs fans. He also followed George H. W. Bush, showing more bipartisanship than he is usually credited with.

If this Twitter feed is indeed written by the president – as this one appears to be – it is potentially a way of getting less filtered presidential thoughts in a way that other media do not provide.

The account may also be able to tell us what Obama is thinking about at a specific time, in much the same way that diaries have done in the past. Even though we must recognize that the feeds will of course be filtered by political considerations, even here they can give a sense of what a president is willing to reveal.

A personal presidential Twitter feed brings something that other forms of White House social media, written by people other than the president, do not. If this Twitter feed is indeed written by the president – as this one appears to be – it is potentially a way of getting less filtered presidential thoughts in a way that other media do not provide. As I discovered when writing my book on the presidency and pop culture, what a president is reading or watching can influence his language or approach to pressing issues of the day. In other words, what might initially seem as mere entertainment can have historical value as a fuller perspective of the administration takes shapes.

The presidential Twitter feed could potentially provide significant detail and insight into what is influencing the president – or whether an issue is even on the president’s mind. Obviously, a lot depends on how the president uses the account, but if George W. Bush had tweeted all of the books he was reading in his book-reading contest with Karl Rove, we wouldn’t have had to wait until Rove’s December 2008 Wall Street Journal column to get a fuller sense of the seriousness – and the sheer number of books – Bush was reading as president during a time of significant challenges.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 10.23.05 AMTwitter may help future historians in another way: by giving them insights into a politician’s thinking before he takes the oath of office. The accounts of presidential aspirants, while also filtered, give a sense of what aspects of their personalities they believe should be emphasized to advance their political goals. Twitter accounts could be even more useful for biographies of people who will become presidents a few decades from now. These people will be far less guarded in revealing their thoughts as they won’t know that voters, let alone biographers, will someday be poring over them.

Twitter is a very good way to capture what someone is thinking about at a particular moment in time. When I have coffee with someone I have not seen in a while, I often do a quick scan through their recent tweets to see what is on their mind. Imagine a historian being able to do that for the twenties and thirties of someone who does not yet know they are going to be famous, let alone president. The most fascinating part of biographies typically covers how a subject got where he or she was going. In the future, Twitter will be a valuable way to learn about the ideological influences and intellectual priorities of leaders in their formative years.

We often see people bemoaning the end of letter writing and how that might make it harder for biographers of the future. (Simon Garfield’s recent “To the Letter” was a whole book on the lost art of letter writing.) And it is true that future biographers will not have, for example, letters of the kind John and Abigail Adams exchanged, but they will have tools that could potentially be more valuable. In many ways, Twitter feeds of young future presidents could potentially serve as hand-written letters did for biographical subjects previous generations. Letter writing is a lost art, but Twitter can reveal what people were reading, eating, thinking, and talking about with great specificity. And unlike letters, they can’t be lost or burned. As Bruce Feiler wrote in the New York Times, due to Twitter and other forms of social media, “One truism about contemporary life is that there are no more secrets . . . Everything is knowable, if you just know where to look.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 10.07.03 AMNow it is all knowable, but it was not always so. The White House has long constructed walls keeping the president’s thinking from the American public. New media, however, combined with a president eager to experiment, such as in Obama’s lengthy recent interview on the WTF podcast, means that historians will one day be able to peek far deeper into a president’s thinking than ever before. Twitter, Facebook, podcast interviews, and other new media may have mixed blessings for us a society, but for historians, they mean that political biographies of the future have the potential to be a lot more revealing.

Tevi Troy is the president of the American Health Policy Institute, and a former deputy secretary of HHS and White House aide. He is the author of What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. @POTUS: Twitter Is a Future Biographers’ Best Friend