In the Era of Twitter, Have We Lost the Quotable?

How Fast-Paced Social Media Have Changed the Form of Political Speech


While President Obama still delivers regular and lengthy speeches that connect to the American public, many politicians like Sarah Palin have taken to sites like Twitter to let their messages be known. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Published: March 2, 2011

Politicians have prided themselves upon their ability (or the ability of their speechwriters) to create one line, one zinger in their speeches to rouse the pride inside of their constituents and seal their name in the high school yearbook quote inventory.

Yet today, in the age of communication via Twitter and Facebook, blog entries and webcasts, have our politicians lost the ability to create “the perfect quote” in the rush of instant publication on the Internet?

As we reflect this year on what would be the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan, I reflect on the lasting quotes of the Great Communicator. Lines such as “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” or the “dream of America as a shining city on a hill” are ingrained in American culture as placemarks for the mood of America in the 1980s.

President Reagan had one major advantage to his timelessness: in 1981, there was no 24-hour news cycle, no Twitter, no Facebook. All of his communication with the American people was through three main media: the newspaper, the radio and the network nightly news. There were relatively few opportunities to communicate to the populace, and these opportunities were limited to certain amounts of print space and airtime.

American political writing 30 years later stretches over the vast and fractured world of new media. When President Obama speaks, his words are no longer disseminated solely by major news outlets; they are broadcast on Twitter and Facebook instantly, discussed on the New York Times and Huffington Post and dissected and argued on countless political blogs. Although the president is generally known as a good public speaker, it seems that his ability to create memorable, timeless quotes is much less than the politicians of the past.

Obviously, not everything stated by pre-Internet presidents was a quote for the ages, nor is President Obama completely lacking in elegant lines. Yet in this age of instant communication, instant gratification and instant criticism, do his lines have the same ability to transcend the decades as those before him?

One way to look at this is the way that the media analyzes another hot politician, Sarah Palin. The former Alaskan governor, now figurehead for the burgeoning Tea Party movement, presents many of her editorial writings on her Facebook page. She quickly creates Facebook notes on current events, usually with an unedited character to them. This method of publication allows for immediate critical response; her ardent fans can instantly support her and laud her on her Facebook page, while her equally ardent opponents can dissect and discredit her words with the same immediacy.

This modern communication technology has changed the landscape of politics, making it an instantaneous and constant public experience. At the same time, the rate of communication from politicians has made every news byte less interesting and exciting.

With the impact that the Internet has had on politics, it brings to question whether the politicians of yesterday and today could have survived in each other’s age. Could Ronald Reagan have built the beloved reputation that endures seven years after his death if he had needed to communicate to the American people via Twitter, Facebook, a weekly podcast and a YouTube channel all updated daily? Could Barack Obama survive in a period where he wouldn’t have to communicate in a 24-hour cycle, instead giving limited amounts of pitch and message to the American people daily?

In the end, it’s a question of whether times are the products of politicians or politicians are a product of the times. Don’t forget how Barack Obama gained his presidency by rallying youth via the medium that we could appreciate most—the Internet. Because of this, his greatest support came from the high-tech youth of America. At the same time, he has alienated many of the older generations who don’t feel that they can connect with his manner of talking to them. Yet Ronald Reagan’s words resonate just as well with my grandparents as with myself. Perhaps constant insight into the mind of the politician isn’t always a good thing.