There's something unsettling about President Obama's comment to students in China that he has never used Twitter. That's right, never.
The president was meeting with Chinese students in Shanghai when one asked: "Do you know about the great firewall, and should we be able to use Twitter?"
President Obama answered, "I have never used Twitter, but I'm an advocate of technology and not restricting Internet access."
The president has 2.6 million Twitter followers and his offhand comment upset many of them. Beyond that, however, presence is a big part of what Twitter and other forms of social media are about. Users feel they are in touch with people or institutions in a direct, one-on-one manner. Nobody expects the president to be tweeting every other minute or not to deputize staff members to tweet in his name. Other corporate users employ second-hand posters, but Obama's political image is based heavily on being an astute strategist of the Internet and social media. Never to have used Twitter?
The thing is many of the posts on the president's feed have a ring of immediacy and authenticity to them, a personalized feel, such as: "House vote on health reform is imminent. This is a once-in-a-generation moment. Be part of it."
It's not unreasonable to feel that Obama might take the occasional moment to connect personally with his Twitter public. That's the distinction of social media, that they offer such opportunities.
It would be a shame if social media turned out to be simply another media stream to be manipulated for corporate purposes. We shouldn't be surprised, I suppose, if that happens. However, it would be a shame for all involved -- posters and followers alike. Public relations itself would be dealt another image blow.