Tech + Health

01.17.14

Snapchatting With Senator Rand Paul

I Snapchatted with Senator Rand Paul. Is this the future of elected official-constituent communications? Doubtful.

On Wednesday, I made a new friend.

Senator Rand Paul, the filibustering, anti-drone, fresh-faced Kentucky Republican Party savior got a Snapchat account. The move was indicative of an ingrained GOP tendency to incorporate misguided attempts at connecting with “the youth,” (see Mitt Romney’s legendary “Who Let the Dogs Out” reference).

I received Paul’s first snap a little after 11 am EST. It was a short, inoffensive video message which simply stated “thanks for the follow!” Of course, I took a quick screenshot of it, as the rest of the conscious general public did, documenting this historic moment.

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The snap remained in the “Snapchat Stories” section of the app, allowing me to replay it over and over again throughout the day. Paul’s positioning in what was presumably his Hill office became hilarious upon revisits. He clearly had an intern hold his phone at a distance of at least five feet away, assuming some kind of feigned sense of official authority while sending a glorified selfie. It reminded me of Donald Trump’s epic but short-lived series of vines, except the bird-nest coifed billionaire opted for a much more intrusive and intimate approach.

The rest of the universe caught onto the new availability of Paul and everyone from Time to POLITICO reported on this unprecedented access. A thought piece even emerged alleging that Paul was appealing to Snapchat for financial incentives.

As the day wore on, and another more risque snap emerged from Paul’s account, I began to wonder whether other people were sending him responses. I speculated that this was opening the door to a series of disturbing images ranging from political lambasting to outright Weiner-esque sexting.

The pitfall of the app is that, screen-shotting aside, it offers people the obvious ability to send graphic pictures with, or without hilarity-inducing captions. Except this time, the recipient is a member of the United States Senate.

So I decided to test Paul, to see if he meant business with this new avenue of public engagement. Later in the evening, after the second of the day’s two snaps from the office of Paul, I sent the following picture with a friend of mine:

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The picture is completely innocuous, despite its obvious lack of accuracy—Paul’s current term lasts until 2015. But it was a good means of testing the water to see if his office would respond to constituents or even open the message itself. At this point in the evening, he had undoubtedly received thousands of these snaps, which barring consistent checks from an armada of interns, would have likely remained unopened lying in a dormant cesspool of peculiar pictures and videos with scribbles on them.

“In Snapchatting the Senator from Kentucky, I could feel a mixture of tangible power—and a potential for debilitating shame.”

I decided to bide my time and see if Paul would say anything, hoping that in some bizarre and unlikely twist of fate he would have chosen my snaps as the ones to which he’d respond.

And I wasn’t the only one communicating with the Senator from Kentucky on this medium.

BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray was too, and she was excited when Paul eventually Snapchatted her back. Better yet: she got mooned.

(It’s okay, Rosie. The Daily Dot’s Molly McHugh snagged the Snap.)

On her Twitter, Rosie writes of the experience, “ok you guys might not believe this but the snapchat from Rand Paul was a picture of the moon and it said ‘You’ve Been Mooned’.” She continued: “and then it said ‘Better take a screenshot fast!’ but I was too slow.”

CNN’s Peter Hamby, in attempting to nail down an interview, discarded the standard approach of emailing the press office and waiting for a call, instead going with Snapchat to contact the senator.

A new kind of journalism?

In Snapchatting the Senator from Kentucky, I could feel a mixture of tangible power—and a potential for debilitating shame. I felt power for realizing that an elected official could potentially see an image of whatever we, the people wanted, which in some respects is for better or worse an amazingly direct pipeline to the American government. And I felt shame for understanding that with this power, we—and presumably most of America—might choose to use it for pure humor.

Snapchat is not going to change the way in which citizens can directly communicate with their elected officials—at least I don’t think so—but even if this was a functional means of touching base, it’s pretty clear we would all abuse it in every which way possible.

As I went home and revisited my Snapchat, I assumed that Paul would have gone to bed without ever seeing any of my Snaps (can we call them that?). Despite my assuredness, I checked to see what had happened to the images I had sent to the senator:

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Paul, or his interns, or official Snapchat manager, or a combination of the three, had seen my messages! Maybe he really did sit there and comb through every single Snap he received throughout the day, whether it was eagerly done to see the opinions of his constituents—or for fun.

I guess it makes sense.

A man who spoke for 13 hours just might have the patience for a six-second video.