Proving he is “hip to all these things,” President Obama invited Tumblr to the White House to discuss student loan debt, gun control and the affordability of higher education.
And Tumblr is the right space in which to have this conversation. A typical Tumblr user is younger than 30 and has at least some higher education -- that is, likely swimming in student loan debt. Not to mention Tumblr is known for #realtalk and fangirling, making the growing social media platform an apt place to get serious about these issues, but, like, in a fun way.
The video chat format was a tad disappointing (we wanted to see Obama respond in an AMA-style authentic to the platform! With GIFs! And Tumblr in-jokes! alas), but the questions were on-point. Tumblr’s been asking users to send in prompts for almost a week now, and Tumblr founder David Karp played the role of interviewer, pronouncing complicated usernames to the best of his ability.
So, who knows? Maybe the president really is hip to all these things. We learned a couple things about him, that's for sure.
1. He knows his Tumblr all-stars.
Obama was joined by a bevy of Tumblr stars, including millennial advice guru Kelly Williams Brown; the folks behind the viral social justice campaign I, Too, Am Harvard; and the teacher behind the education blog Adventures in Learning.
The Tumblr-famous animator traceloops was on hand to provide live GIFs.
Blogger ilovecharts posted information in the minutes leading up to the chat, including stats on student debt and millennial attitudes. Even more Tumblr users received invitations, and they took to Tumblr to live-blog the event.
2. The fist bump is still his signature move (and it always will be).
3. He doesn't fear #realtalk.
Tumblr is a community known for keeping it real (hence the popularity of the hashtag, #realtalk). And Obama led the conversation with a healthy dose.
“Thank you, Mr. President, for inviting Tumblr to your house,” Karp began.
“This is a rental house,” Obama responded. “My lease runs out in about two and a half years.”
He didn’t cloak the grim realities of student debt in sentiment or idealism. He cautioned students against “following their bliss.”
"We have enough lawyers, although it's a fine profession," he told the crowd. "I can say that because I'm a lawyer."
Instead, he made a strong call for students to study STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- to more readily get a job after graduation (and begin paying off that debt after graduation).
“I loved math and science until I got into high school, and then … I misspent those years,” he said.
The average Tumblr user is a 20-something English major. So, not necessarily a STEM superstar the likes of which Obama is praising.
“Ultimately, you are going to do best at something you care deeply for,” he said. “But you still have to grind it out. You can get into the mindset where the effort and sweat you put in doesn’t feel like a burden ... Sometimes you are going to have to take a job to pay the bills.”
A bit grim, but we’ll take it.
4. Gun control has been “his biggest frustration.”
Given the news of the day (the week, the month …), Tumblr wasn’t going to not ask questions about gun control.
Obama was expectedly reserved, but -- surprisingly candid?
He pointed the blame at members of Congress, many of whom he says are “terrified” by the power of the NRA. And, as he said, until public opinion changes to combat these “stunning” developments, it’s only going to get worse.
"I respect gun rights but the idea that we couldn't even get a background check bill in [...] makes no sense,” he told the audience. “We’re the only developed country on earth where this happens and it happens now once a week.”
5. He doesn’t want an entire generation of Mark Zuckerbergs.
Or rather, he’s wary of young people seeing the success of Zuckerberg -- who dropped out of college to net a zillion dollars with Facebook -- and thinking higher education won’t make their dreams reality.
“A college education is the surest path into the middle class,” he said.
And even after joking about scrawny Karp’s basketball chops -- yeah, that kid wasn’t going to LeBron it from high school to the big leagues -- he returned to that issue, urging the students in the audience to stick with college, to get the degree despite the hardships.
“There are very few jobs where you’re not going to need some advanced training,” he cautioned later. “Your career isn’t always a straight line.”
6. He knows his audience.
Despite his earlier remarks about gun control, he knew to appeal to this optimism inherent to the Tumblr audience.
“Don’t get cynical,” he said. “Guard against cynicism. The world is less violent than it has ever been.”
Bonus: He’s already got plans for the next 10 years.
Ah, the final question: “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”
POTUS barely even hesitated.
"I know where I'll be after the next inauguration,” he replied. “I'll be on the beach somewhere, drinking out of a coconut, but that probably won't last too long.”
A previous version of this post identified Kelly Williams Brown as Kelly Brown. The error is corrected above.