Reframing Audience; Co-Motion at #SOTU

G. R. Boynton
Glenn W. Richardson

President Obama began his 2012 state of the union address

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans:

Last month, I went to Andrews Air Force Base and welcomed home some of our last troops to serve in Iraq.  Together, we offered a final, proud salute to the colors under which more than a million of our fellow citizens fought -- and several thousand gave their lives.

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.  (Applause.)  For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.  (Applause.)  For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country.  (Applause.)  Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated.  The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

In those few seconds a flood of communication emanated from the audience.

They reflected on the president's words.

"Ooooooooh, good opening! "Mission Accomplished, BUT FOR REAL". #SOTU." And "My President ended the war in Iraq!!! @BarackObama #Sotu!!!" They were impressed. [110 times]

But there were some who were not impressed: "More respected? By who? #sotu"; "Starts off saying Iraq heroes have made American more respected around the world. Is that why he opposed surge? #SOTU" [59 times]

For the president there was love as in "there is my president up there, damn, he has some swag #sotu #obama2012." [43 times] And there was hate: "He just got started and I already feel nauseous #SOTU." [71 times]

For the first lady there was only love: "Michelle Obama looks amazing #SOTU." [59 times]

There were tears as they remembered: "RT @lap58: Im in tears...that was so sweet! RT @JessicaTaylor: Huge cheers as Obama hugs Rep. Giffords. Incredibly touching moment #sotu." [83 times]

Speaker Boehner's complexion and scowl drew "@JoyVBehar John Boehner's skin is the most beautiful shade of orange I have ever seen. Puts @snooki to shame. #cnn #sotu." [77 times]

As did Vice President Biden's tie: "Joe Biden's tie is playing havoc with my non-HD tv. #SOTU." [71 times]

Drinking games were encouraged: "RT @StephenAtHome: SOTU drinking game: One shot after each time Obama says something socialist. If you're confused, it's at the end of every sentence." [69 times]

As were insider jokes: "The State of the Union should be 140 characters or less #SOTU #Obama #fb." [46 times]

They spotted people in the audience: "RT @secupp: Just spotted John Kerry at SOTU. He looks the way most Americans feel tonight. #blackeyes." [24 times] Senator Kerry was recovering from a hockey injury.

And they noted the absence of Supreme Court justices: "Exactly, @Halloweenblogs, the justices have self deported this evening. #sotu." [20 times]

They found the constant applause grating: "And the standing o[vation] war begins! #sotu." [135 times]

There was hope for a bi-partisan evening "RT @TheFix: People love #sotu because it feels like genuine bipartisanship is possible. It's like opening day in baseball." [41 times]

They were anticipating what would come next: "I anxiously await the Buffett Rule portion of tonight's Address #SOTU." "RT @jaimejcoon: I want to hear President Obama fully endorse equality for LGBTQ people. #SOTU @nytimes." [43 times]

They posted locations of the text of the speech. [42 times] And where it was being broadcast. [38 times]

In that one minute, 8:12 p.m., 1,357 messages were posted to Twitter. Very few were about the actions of the persons posting. [74 times] The rest were about the event they were observing. One of the most striking features of this 1,357 messages is the diversity. There were many focii, and little variation in numbers between them. The communication was exceedingly multi-faceted.

We know about two audiences. The audience in the room was bobbing up and down at approximately one minute intervals. The audience who became speakers were observing every facet of the event and commenting on what they saw and heard.

The President’s Annual Message to Congress

The modern state of the union address occupies a unique yet ambivalent space in the nation’s discourse and civic life.  The historian Charles Beard noted it was the “one great public document of the United States which is widely read and discussed” (Beard 1935:185). Visually, it presents the rare moment when the entirety of the national government is on majestic display, replete with the seemingly archaic live response of those gathered in the Capitol Building’s House Chamber. 

The message is mandated, as it has been since the nation’s founding, by Article II, section 3 of the Constitution of the United States.  As with much of the framer’s design, the annual address has evolved over time.  That evolution has been driven by consideration of audience.

Thomas Jefferson abandoned the precedent established by his predecessors (who had delivered the address in person) by submitting a written message, so as to reduce pomp and ceremony (Campbell and Jamieson 1990, 2008:137).  Jefferson, writes presidential scholar Jeffrey Tulis, was concerned with the “peculiar way that the president’s physical presence might affect the deliberative process” (Tulis 1987:56).  And so it was until Woodrow Wilson revived the oral presentation of the annual message. He believed delivering addresses in person would foster a more cooperative climate with Congress (Campbell and Jamieson 1990, 2008:155). 

For Tulis and like-minded scholars, Wilson’s presidency marked the emergence of the “rhetorical presidency,” a potentially dangerous shift away from the constitutional model of a president above politics addressing a congressional audience, toward a model where demagogic appeals directed at the public served to subvert the deliberative role of the legislature, shifting the focus of power from Congress to the people (see for example Ceasar, et al 1981; Thurow and Wallin 1984; Ceaser 1985; Tulis 1987).  This project has met resistance, most notably from those who reject the notion that popular appeals by presidents are of only relatively recent vintage (see for example Rathbun 2001; Laracey 2002; Hoffman 2002; Zarefsky 2002, 2003; Ellis and Walker 2007). 

Whether or not there has been a strategic shift over time in the patterns and purposes of presidential communication, the nexus of the presidency and the public has been shaped by technological as well as social and political change.  Harry Truman was the first president to deliver a televised state of the union message, and Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to deliver all of his state of the union addresses on television (Dunn Tenpas 2010:147-8).  When Lyndon Johnson moved the speech from its customary noon starting time to an evening slot in prime-time, Nixon speechwriter Lee Huebner noted, “suddenly instead of it being a speech for well-informed people who follow government closely, it became a speech for the general public” (Edmonds et al 2010:168). 

As a rhetorical genre, Campbell and Jamieson suggest, three characteristics reveal the function of this rhetorical act for the presidency:  “(1) public meditations on values, (2) assessments of information and issues, and (3) policy recommendations” (1990, 2008:139).  They note that while “the specific assessments and recommendations are the ephemera of U.S. history; the values developed in the public meditations are an enduring record of the creation and development of our national identity” (Campbell and Jamieson 1990, 2008:140). In their meditations on values, presidents “include a retelling of the past that emphasizes shared experience in order to create a collective fiction, an ethos or national character” (Campbell and Jamieson 1990, 2008:140).

While scholars have long recognized the audience for the state of the union is multi-faceted (spanning at least Congress, the public and the international community), in the television age the focus has tended toward the mass audience.  Yet our notions of audience remain largely speaker-centric.  Scholars have principally framed inquiry in terms of the effect the president’s words have on the mass audience, typically measured through public opinion polls.  From this perspective, state of the union messages are largely seen as failures.

We know that even while the audience for state of the union addresses is larger than those for other speeches (Edwards 2003: 196-8) the audience for all presidential speeches is shrinking (see also Kernell and Baum 1999; Young and Perkins 2005; see also  It may also be growing more partisan (Nelson 2010: 19).

George C. Edwards III found the link in the chain of communication between the president and the public so weak it raises the question of why presidents even keep trying (Edwards 2003:238).  Dunn Tenpas extended Edwards analysis to cover all state of the union messages in the TV age (1953-2008) and found only 11 of 51 “produced changes in presidential approval of six or more percentage points, and eight of the eleven were in the negative direction” (Dunn Tenpas 2010:157).

State of the union messages are also viewed with some disdain by their multitude of participants, starting with the very wordsmiths who craft them. Remarking on an increasingly theatric tenor,  Ray Price, a speechwriter for President Nixon, described the speech as “Hollywood on the Potomac” (Edmonds, et al 2010:188).  Peter Robinson, a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, opined thusly:

I hate the damn thing, and I consider the state of the union one of the central mysteries of modern American life.  The president doesn’t want to give it, Congress doesn’t want to listen to it, the networks don’t want to cover it and every year the damn thing happens all the same (Edmonds, et al 2010:193).

Perhaps, however, the state of the union is not such a futile exercise after all.  Roderick Hart posits several potential benefits of presidential addresses beyond “paper and pencil measures,” including the ability to change the national conversation, the national imagination, people’s presuppositions and how current political events are defined” (Hart 2008:244-6).

David Zarefsky urges us to broaden our analytical horizon when he writes:

“… the focus on the message-audience relationship—looking for effects of messages on audiences—is only one dimension of a rhetorical transaction, and not always the most helpful or informative.  In particular, it tends to reduce the message to verbal text and then treat the text as a “black box,” rather than seeing its dynamics as interesting and worthy of analysis in their own right” (Zarefsky 2004:608)

President Nixon, his speechwriter Lee Huebner reported, had “a rule that anybody who wrote a speech for him, or who even provided most of the material, would have to be present when the speech was given, whether it was given on the other side of the world or on the other side of Washington.  He wanted them to feel the audience reaction and to be part of the moment, because it is sometimes so hard to tell how a speech works” (quoted in Dunn Tenpas 2010:193).

In the age of Twitter, we are now at a juncture in time where it is possible to unpack the black box of audience and investigate its dynamics in their own right.


We have known since Aristotle that communication is in the interaction of speaker and audience. The actions of the speaker are readily observed. But the audience is another matter. Even when we know the speaking and the incessant bobbing up and down the audience remains a black box. The interpretation of how the audience is interacting with the speaker is supposition. Speech in. Bobbing up and down with applause out. What is in between is not available to us.

That the audience remains something of a mystery is not for wont of trying. People have been asked to produce diaries. Nielsen distributes boxes to record television viewing. People have been asked to move a joy stick around to indicate approval and disapproval. Focus groups have been assembled to discuss the speaking as it is occurring. And, probably the weakest of all, sample surveys of the population are obsessively mounted and interpreted.

Each has its weaknesses. We do not want to elaborate on the weaknesses because the new media offer a very different take on audience interacting with speaker. Audience is no longer one as audience becomes speakers. In particular, Twitter, which is by default public and is increasingly used to communicate about politics, lets us examine the interaction of speakers. What the audience becomes in this new media world is the conclusion we are driving toward.


The Twitter messages used in this analysis were collected before, during and after the State of the Union addresses of 2010, 2011, and 2012. Archivist, a desktop program running under Windows, was used to capture the messges. It ran continuously sending a query to Twitter every five minutes. Because Twitter will only respond with 1,500 messages per query the upper limit on messages captured per hour is 18,000. Under most circumstances that is sufficient to capture the streams of Twitter messages about politics.

In 2010 the search was for messages containing Obama, and for the hour of the speech 7471 messages were found. That is well within the limits of the software capabilities, and the file was checked to find evidence of loss without finding any. Obama was again the search term in 2011 and 7678 messages were found for the period during Obama's speech.

There was a huge increase in 2012. Twitter reported finding 755,000 messages associated with the State of the Union address during the president's speech and the Republican response. (Twitter blog, 1/24/2012) They reported there were just over 8,000 Twitter messages a minute during that time. While they are specific about the time they are less specific about what they included in the count. The phrase they use is: "Total tweets referencing the State of the Union and related hashtags." Apparently, about 100,000 were messages that included the "core themes" the White House had set for the address, which might contain neither the president's name nor #sotu. One, they cast their net more broadly than we did. Two, the number they found make our collection a small sample of the total. Two searches were run simultaneously. For one the search term was Obama. That yielded 16, 570 Twitter messages, which approaches the upper limit that is possible using Archivist and the general Twitter search routine. For the other the search term was #sotu, which was the hashtag for state of the union. That search collected 16,761 messages. Some of the messages contained both search terms. If you subtract the overlap the total collection is 24,000. Given the collection procedures these are reasonably random samples in time, and the pattern of surge and decline in the sample would approximately parallel the much larger stream from which they are samples.

The increasing use of Twitter makes it plausible that this pattern of change in total messages could be accurate. Twitter only started being used outside the high tech community in the fall of 2009. At the time of the 2010 address there were just over 50 million messages a day posted to Twitter. By the 2012 address the number of messages per day had jumped to around 300 million. The general pattern was a six fold increase.

The textual analysis of Twitter messages examines messages posted during the state of the union address in 2012 that were retweeted. Five hundred and fifty-five unique messages were retweeted three times or more, and these messages were coded for the object of their focus, the affect of the message, checking messages that were and were not direct quotations of the address, and whether the congressional audience applauded the line that was quoted.

We present counts in the report, but the interpretation is somewhat different from other reports of empirical research. For 2012 we have what is approximately a 1 in 30 sample. The numbers we report only make sense if multiplied by 30. Ordinarily scholars norm reported numbers in one way or another. If you say the percentage of X was Y the raw number is not reported; it is reported as a subset of a total with the expectation that the subset would be approximately the same in the population. An alternative is to characterize a distribution; it is a normal distribution, for example. The assumption is that the numbers in the sample have a distribution and it is approximately the same as the distribution in the population. So the raw numbers are not the important result; the distribution, which could be any raw numbers, is what is important. Two factors prevent us from doing a similar norming of the counts we have. One standard procedure that works with norming is to ask all members of the sample the same question. The answers are limited to 2, 5, 7 or some number of options. That reduces the variety to a very small set of possibilities. Research using Twitter is letting people answer the questions they want to answer without our imposing a restriction on them. It turns out they want to answer many different questions. There is very high variety in the information we have to work with. If you norm wirth percentages, for example, no set of Twitter messages constitutes a large percentage of the total. The population we are studying is high variety. A second consideration arises because we want to focus on retweeted messages. Messages that are retweeted are important because they are available to the followers of the persons posting them. And our research suggests political retweeting reaches a thousand or more followers. (Boynton, 2010; Boynton, 2012) In this case a single message posted should be multiplied by 30 to reflect its place in the population and by 1,000 to reflect its reach. One retweeted message identifies a message that reaches an audience of 30,000.

Conventions in communicating via Twitter

Twitter is a broadcast medium. One produces 140 or fewer characters and posts them to the Twitter service. Then by default those 140 characters are available to anyone who is interested. This is the fundamental character of Twitter communication. The messages are easy to write and easy to read. And they are public; as such they constitute a public space in communication. And the communication is increasingly in use throughout the world.

But Twitter users wanted interaction in their communication. So they invented procedures to use to facilitate interaction. Convention is the bedrock of communication. Every language community constitutes conventions to promote communication. And Twitter users were no different. While there are other conventions the three examined here are designed to facilitate interaction within this broadcast medium.

Hashtages, the # followed immediately by characters, are often used to constitute a domain of communication. The hashtag that is important for this analysis is #sotu. It was the hashtag used to refer to the State of the Union address. People who used this hashtag wanted their message to become part of a stream of messages about the address. They wanted their message to be found by people who were searching for what was being said about the address. You did not need #sotu to write about the President's speech. You only needed #sotu if you wanted what you wrote to be found by others. #sotu, then, became the domain of communication about the address. It is, in the odd internet space, the place we gather to share our views.

An estimate of the percentage of messages containing #sotu is possible for 2010, 2011, and 2012. The table shows the percentage of messages that included Obama that also included #sotu.

The percentages are the percent of total messages containing Obama that also contain #sotu for the two hours before the address, during the address and two hours after the address. The bar on the left of each triple is 2010, the middle bar is 2011, and the bar on the right is 2012. A higher percentage of the messages during the speech contain #sotu than either before or after the speech. During the speech from 25% to 37% of the messages contained #sotu.

These are the messages that are explicit about their interest in becoming one in the stream of messages about the State of the Union address. They want to speak in this space. They want to be found in this space.

It is one move to convert a broadcast medium into a medium of interaction.

The second move is sharing what you are reading using the convention of retweeting. A retweet is an attributed quotation. Even while watching the president speak they were reading what others were posting on Twitter, and the messages they thought important they passed along to the people who follow them. The message that is passed along has the form

RT @username status message.

Followers thus know from whom they have received the message and who originated it. Retweeting is a triple connection -- author, retweeter, follower -- that depends on a basic organizational feature of Twitter. People can follow you. To be followed means that the followers receive all of the messages you post to Twitter. When a message is retweeted it becomes available to all of one's followers. There is no guarantee that the message will be read just as there is no guarantee that TV sets turned on are being watched or newspapers being purchased are being read. But there is little reason to follow someone if you are going to ignore the messages that person posts.

search #sotu collection

Forty-five percent of the messages were retweets in the two hours before the 2012 address. Forty-one percent during the address were retweets. And 60% were retweets in the two hours after the address. If you added the original messages that were being retweeted to this count it would be increased another five percent, or so. Retweeting starts with reading messages from others. If 45% to 60% of the messages are retweets then there is a lot of reading as well as writing producing the stream of messages.

It is a second move to convert a broadcast medium into a medium of interaction.

The third convention is the use of urls in messages. (Boynton, 10/2/2011) When including a url in the Twitter message the person is generally introducing a reference to material from beyond the Twitter communication stream. People are reading or have read or watched the materials and now they are bringing them into the discussion about #sotu. One view has been that Twitter messages simply reflect the mainstream media. They are, thus, simply echoing on Twitter the communication that was already available in the mainstream and the social media generally are an echo chamber. To the best of our knowledge no one has demonstrated that. Preliminary research on the media included in messages about the Republican candidates found that while the national media were important in urls posted it was overwhelmingly urls that would not be considered mainstream media referenced in the messages. (Boynton, 2011) That does not mean the mainstream media is irrelevant, of course. It does mean that the circulation of communication is a good deal more complicated than suggested by the echo chamber claim.

search #sotu collection

Fewer messages contain urls than retweets. And the pattern is quite different. There are more urls before the address. Then the twitter messages containing urls drops dramatically during the address. And the number of messages containing urls increases again for the two hours after the address. While they do not stop reading other messages and retweeting them during the address they do stop referring to outside communication. During the address they are focused on the address itself and their own reactions. Reactions to the media are for before and after the address.

In Twitter communication the url plays three roles. First, it informs the reader that the external source is there. It is a sharing of something the writer thinks is important enough to be worth sharing. Second, it recommends the external source positively or negatively. Finally, it serves as justification for the Twitter message. It is both an elaboration of the point being made in the Twitter message and provides source credibility to the assertion of the writer of the message.

This is a third move to convert a broadcast medium into a medium of interaction.

With these three conventions users of Twitter are constituting a domain of communication, are very busy reading what others are writing and are writing in turn, and are, at least before and after the address, bringing external documents into the communication. The audience has become many as they have become speakers.


Obama: You see, an economy built to last is one where we encourage the talent and ingenuity of every person in this country.  That means women should earn equal pay for equal work.  (Applause.) 

That line was retweeted more than any other in the State of the Union address. An idea thought to be long settled in principle, if not always in practice, was now contested by the 'evangelical brotherhood' who are intent on, among other changes in society, reasserting the rightful place of men and women. The 'war against women' of these Republicans inspired many who wanted to add their voice to the president's.

But it did not stop there. It also inspired " Why did so many punk men stay seated when POTUS said women need equal pay? Don't they have wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, nieces? #sotu " They were watching the chamber and noted that dispite the applause there were some who did not participate including " Seriously, Boehner -- you're not going to applaud equal pay for women? #SOTU." the Speaker of the House apparently was sitting motionless while the applause of others was interrupting the address.

In their interaction the audience becomes co-motion. There is interaction between speaker and audience as the audience takes to Twitter to articulate their views of the proceedings. And the interaction within the audience is most clearly seen in retweeting which involves reading what others have written, adding your name to it and possibly a comment, and passing it on to followers. Each of the messages quoted was retweeted many times becoming an important part of the co-motion that was the State of the Union that evening.

Focus: Obama, positive

The primary focus of the audiences -- both in the room and on Twitter -- was the president and his words. And the response was enthusiastic.

We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world.  (Applause.)

For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.  (Applause.)

For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country.  (Applause.)

Sentences three, four and five of the address each drew applause. President Obama spoke for one hour and six minutes, and his speech was interrupted 86 times by applause according to the text on the White House website. The frequency of the applause brought these quips from the online audience.

Standing Ovation is the Congressional Version of High Fiving. #sotu

Repeatedly standing up and sitting down is the most action this Congress has done in the past 4 years #SOTU <> hahaha!

The focus on Twitter was equally on the president. Three hundred and fifty-five of the 550 unique messages that were retweeted focussed on what the president was saying. One hundred and fifty-three were direct quotations from the speech, and 88 of these were the 'applause lines' or variants on those lines.

With 86 applause lines in 'the House' one might think it difficult to find additional points to celebrate. That was not the case, however. This, then, is what the Twitter audience added to the co-motion. Some are pretty obvious.

"We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction" #SOTU

May? "The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change." #SOTU

With or without this Congress, I will keep taking actions that help the economy grow. #SOTU

Criticizing congress was not warmly applauded by members of congress. People communicating via Twitter felt no such inhibition. The president was saying what many of them had said about bouncing up and down being the most work congress had done in four years.

Not much less obvious were two lines about taxes.

"If you make under $250,000 a year, like 98% of American families, your taxes shouldn't go up." #SOTU

'If you make more than $1 million a year, you should not pay less than 30% in taxes' - Obama

The first line was warmly applauded. The second passed without interruption except on Twitter where it was a popular retweet. Equally ignored in the House and not on Twitter was the president's reference to Mr. Buffett paying less of his income in taxes than his secretary.

The good news about the economy was greeted with enthusiasm both in the House and on Twitter.

"We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back. "

In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million #jobs. #SOTU

"Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you "America will always win." #Obama #SOTU

Taking on Wall Street and corporate America was only applauded on Twitter.

'No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insist on responsibility from everybody.' #SOTU

"I will not go back to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules" #SOTU

"We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits." #SOTU

Members of congress did not rise in applause for these lines.

One final contrast involving the response to Obama's statements about the armed forces.

Our freedom endures because of the men and women in uniform who defend it. We must serve them as well as they served us. #SOTU

Which brings me back to where I began.  Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from the service of our troops.  When you put on that uniform, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight.  When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails.  When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.

Everyone thought to celebrate the men and women in uniform who defend our freedom. But when Obama turned the heroics of the men and women in uniform back on congress only messages on Twitter celebrated this.

Eighty-six interruptions for applause is fulsome praise. Recounting what was celebrated by the audience in the House does not have much point since it was almost everything. What is noteworthy is those moments celebrated by one audience and not the other. Members of congress do not warm to being instructed about their responsibilities. And they were less enthusiastic than was the Twitter audience for criticism of major corporate America. Those, and one or two more, were what the Twitter audience independently contributed to the co-motion.

Focus: Obama, negative

Retweeted twitter messages about the president's address were largely positive. The numbers were 227 positive, 117 negative, and 11 about which one could not be sure. The bulk of the criticism was about policies purported to be policies of Obama. Criticisms of policy are 72 of the 117 unique retweeted messages. The remainder were divided between humor, partisanship, and expressive opposition.

There are two ways to engage in opposition without having to bother with arguments about policy. One is humor, and there are a few messages that use humor in criticizing the president. One was about a joke the president told.

With the spilled milk joke, Obama just declared War on Comedy #SOTU

Apparently, some of the president's writers thought the spilled milk joke funny, and a rather substantial number of people following the address and communicating on Twitter did not. This was one way they expressed their view that the joke was a flop. Another analysis of Twitter messaging found this joke produced the largest spike of the evening. (TOPSYLABS, 12/01/25))

The second most retweeted message was also a joke.

One shot after each time Obama says something socialist. If you're confused, it's at the end of every sentence.

Not only did the telling start in the first minute of the address, but it can trace its heritage back as far as I have a record of Twitter and the State of the Union address. It is a standard story that still goes over very well. Of course, no self respecting socialist would think it funny because it reveals how little is understood about their views on the economy and politics. But it's a joke. Obvious error is the nature of the game.

The second way to stand negative could be called expressive. It is expressive -- "spewing hate" would be an appropriate colloquial phrase for characterization. The messages go like this.

This will be the most vain, vile, partisan, and egotistical SOTU ever

This is like listening to nails on a chalkboard. #SOTU

Show me what demagoguery looks like. #SOTU

Why do I feel like someone just shit in my ear? #SOTU

People who oppose Obama do not have a monopoly on vile politics. It can probably be found in every nook and cranny in our politics. But it comes out in the open when Twitter lets you go public at exceedingly low cost.

Opposition to Obama's policies as he articulated them in the address was not one-sided. Twenty-one of the complaints came from the left. Thirty-one came from the right. And sixteen could have been lodged against the president from left or right. These are messages repeated from three to 20 times each, and they reach a large number of followers.

Messages from the right included

Energy: Please. Someone. Yell "KEYSTONE XL" now. #sotu

Deficit: Obama dedicates just 194 words or 2.8% of tonight's #SOTU to talking about our $15 trillion debt crisis.

Taxes: Average effective income tax rate for top 1% is 24%. The bottom 50%? Just 1.85%. #SOTU

Armed forces: He is claiming friendship with the military and the SEALs? The only people he has offended more are the Catholics and the unborn. #SOTU

Health Care: Priority Number One! Repeal ObamaCare #SOTU

Energy was mentioned more often than any of the others, and all were calls for more production of 'not clean' energy. The deficit was second and they combined expressions of concern with the deficit and concerns about a budget not being passed. Taxes was the rich should pay less. Well, they did not say it that way, but that was what their complaint would lead to. They were irked that Obama was taking credit for the death of Osama bin Laden. And health care was mentioned only once, though it was the standard right position.

Criticisms from the left were more scattered except for one.

Obama, let Bradley Manning be free!!! He is a real patriot. #SOTU

Dear Obama, why did you sign #NDAA after saying you wouldn't? #SOTU

"Cyber Threats" FBI is one #SOTU

Dear Obama, why is Guantanamo Bay still open? #SOTU

What about free speech?

These are threats to freedom of speech and assembly. The National Defense Authorization Act included a provision that would permit indefinite detention. It put inito law the treatment Bradley Manning was receiving. The 'big brother' state was the concern in each case.

Three messages complained that politics is for sale to the highest bidder. It was directed at the president in this one.


Obama complains about the corrosive influence of money in politics but then runs a billion dollar campaign.

Focus: Republicans, negative

The Republicans were bit players in this co-motion. But there were 37 Twitter messages retweeted at least three times mentioning the Republicans. And all were negative. The two major focii were 'not clapping' and two presidential candidates.

The audience interrupted the president 86 times in 66 minutes. It is not a surprise that Republicans were less enthusiastic than Democrats and were inclined to skip the clapping. Nine messages called attention to their not clapping, and most were framed as incredulity.

Look who's not clapping. #SOTU

Republicans stubbornly refuse to applaud idea of America always winning. #SOTU

Republicans angrily refuse to applaud idea of avoiding economic catastrophe. #SOTU

"We want a country where everyone gets a fair shot!" Not a single Republican applauded. There's your two Americas. #SOTU

"Look who's not clapping" becomes the recital of 8 instances when Democrats clapped but Republicans did not. The implication of the second and third message is -- who would not clap "American always winning" or "avoiding economic catastrophe"? Republicans are reported acting in a way that only partisanship can explain. The fourth statement explicitly draws that conclusion. A fair shot, no Republicans clapped, and that is the two Americas. The other five have this same character. Repulbicans were not applauding something the president said, and it is so implausible that they disagree with the statement that it can only be partisanship at work.

There was hope for a bi-partisan evening "RT @TheFix: People love #sotu because it feels like genuine bipartisanship is possible. It's like opening day in baseball."

Hopes were dashed as Republicans acted out their partisanship, and the Twitter audience called attention to how they dashed hope.

The second focii is Gingrich and Romney. By January 24, 2011 the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination had almost started. Before candidates began to announce their candidacy people using Twitter were sure that Gingrich and Romney were going to be candidates. Romney had just announced that he would not reveal his taxes until later. That drew the standard criticism including

POTUS always includes himself as one who should pay more taxes. Romney hides his tax returns. No difference? #SOTU

The messages about Gingrich were generally crude allusions to his relationships with women.

The most novel criticism of Republicans was " Whenever they show Eric Cantor, all of my plants die and I feel sad inside. #sotu. " Most of the rest were criticisms based on one or another policy with the list of policies being almost as long as the number of messages -- little redundancy.


Our focus has been on how the Twitter audience was augmenting the audience in 'the House.' There was substantial overlap in their applause. Television showed the applause. Retweeting pushed that showing out to many followers who may not have been paying attention to the address. But the Twitter audience had its own take on the event. That special take is what we have tried to capture here.


The 550 Twitter messages we examined and summarized were retweeted three times or more. The last step is noting how many people had access to these messages. That requires some calculations and some assumptions about what to multiply by what.

The 550 unique retweeted messages appeared in our sample 3,304 times.

Our sample is roughly 1 in 30. That means multiply 3,304 by 30 producing 99,120 instances in the full population of Twitter messsages about the State of the Union Address. Since there were 755,000 messages, according to Twitter, 99,120 does not seem unexpected.

If there were 99,120 instances of the retweeted messages how many followers received them. Followers receive all the messages one posts to Twitter. How many followers are the people who are retweeting these messages likely to have. The answer is at least 1,000 per person posting a message. That is very far out of line with normal Twitter operation. However, the collections on which that estimate is based are quite considerable. They include Twitter messages about each of the candidates for the Republican nomination during that campaign. Those average substantially more than 1,000 per person. It includes almost a year of following people who include #teaparty or #p2 in their Twitter messages. That is about 30,000 messages per day. It includes Twitter messages containing barackobama over almost a year. It includes a one week collection of everyone who retweets a message originally posted by seven political organizations such as MoveOn and The National Review. And more. Everywhere we have looked we find a thousand or more.

If you multiply 99,120 by one thousand you get 99,120,000. That is a very big number. It is too big. These messages were surely aimed at people who are citizens of the U.S. There are not that many citizens who have Twitter accounts. But cut it in half -- 50,000,000. It is still a very big number. Or cut it to one-third -- 33,000,000 -- and it is still a very big number. Compare this with an actual count. The twitter messages of ThinkProgress that were retweeted reached 47,000,000 Twitter users in a single week. (Boynton, 5/17/2012)

The reach of Twitter messages in politics far surpasses the standard practice of communication via Twitter. It approaches and may exceed the reach of television. It has reached 'move over mainstream media' there is a new medium of communication 'in town' even though we have not recognized that, yet.

Co-motion and reconstructing the public domain

With Twitter the audience is revealed; they have become speakers. The mystery is revealed as they respond to the president and to each other. Scholars of communicaton have access to audience via Twitter unlike any other.

This scholarly access to audience can go in many ways. There is no one true framework for understanding what we see. Co-motion is the frame we have pursued in this report on our research. The focus has been on audience as activity. They are listening. But they are actively engaged in responding as they listen. Like the members of congress who bob up and down more frequently than once a minute the Twitter audience is actively expressing their response to the president. It would be easy to collapse this back into the 'atomized individual' framework. Their response is broadcast because that is what Twitter is. Twitter is broadcast. And that is why it is important to notice the ways people communicating via Twitter have constructed interaction in the broadcast environment. It is co-motion, and not just individual motion. It is co-motion with the president. It is co-motion with each other.

Co-motion then becomes a point of departure for reframing how the public domain is being reconstructed. Interpreting the destruction of the news industry is itself a minor industry. The contributors to understanding what news is becoming are legion. A particularly succinct and recent statement is found in "Google's head of news: Newspapers are the new Yahoo," the report of a talk by Richard Gingras, the head of Google's news products. (Ingram, 5/12/2012) There is quite general agreement about what is obvious. The news industry as we have known it is defunct and is being replaced by a much more diverse set of arrangements.

The public domain is where we, the community, gather to discuss what would be good for us. At least 1950 to present the news industry has been the monopoly supplier of the public domain. If you have wanted to address the community you did it through the news industry. By their control of distribution they set who could address the community and who could not. They set what could be said and what could not. However, the technology has changed and they no longer control distribution. If you want to address the community -- speak. Twitter, and other new media, now handle distribution and access is 'free.' If we understand audience as co-motion then the audience is the public domain.

It is not everyone, of course. But it is never the case that everyone is the audience. Audience is self selection. The people who are using Twitter or other new media to communicate about the State of the Union are a self selected subset of the audience. But it is a self selected subset that is growing rapidly -- from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands moving from #SOTU one to #SOTU three. This is the move. It is the move that we can see most clearly by looking at the State of the Union address. But audience is becoming our public domain everywhere.


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