March 12, 2013
By Steven James Snyder
Our time had expired, I was getting the “wrap it up, now!” signal from the volunteers charged with keeping the tech festival moving, and yet I knew the moment Mayor Cory Booker nearly vaulted out of his chair for one final question that things would run late. Very late.
In one of the most stirring 15-minute closing monologues I have witnessed at South By Southwest Interactive, the mayor of Newark laid out his vision for not just why social media must play an integral role in bringing government closer to its population but also why America will achieve its full potential only once the people collectively embrace what he identified as a “declaration of interdependence.”
Edging forward in his seat, Booker poured over his personal history, his hopes for the future, and his commitment to be an active player in the “conspiracy of love” that he says has defined his family — and his country. For the first fifty minutes of Sunday’s conversation, I had been the interviewer and facilitator, marching Booker through his social media history (both hits and flubs) and his new initiative with the social video site Waywire (you can read through the highlights here). But his closing stump speech required no prompts or queries; it was a sweeping, emotional, extemporaneous eruption of beliefs and commitments. The Atlantic’s Timothy Bella might have said it best when he declared: “It was a tour de force of old-school charismatic politics…as well-received as Booker’s Twitter presence is for its personal touch, the live version might be better.”
So I wasn’t exactly surprised when my final follow-up question was drowned out by a minute-long ovation. I also wasn’t surprised when, late Tuesday evening, Mayor Booker was bestowed with the prestigious designation of “Speaker of the Event.” What did surprise me was how the Booker session emerged as a defining intermission in my SXSW 2013 experience. Not to sound naïve here, but after the Booker session I found myself asking different kinds of questions and measuring panels by a whole different set of criteria.
The epic Booker epilogue began in earnest with these lines: “The tools of our parents worked so well with media. They mastered it and organized. We’re not mastering those tools. We have better tools than they had. We can create values in places that our parents couldn’t even imagine.” The “tool,” obviously, is social media – platforms through which we all can reach a critical mass of people with a single tweet or post. As for the “values,” Booker pointed to the concepts of transparent government, leaders who are immersed in their communities, and the potential for individuals to steer the political discourse away from the sound bites and controversy of the media “oligarchy.”
All rhetoric we’ve heard before, sure. But then a strange thing happened: Booker started connecting the dots of the individual acts of kindness that shaped his father’s life, empowering him to go to school. The mayor then drew a through line to his own daily gestures, and I began reflecting on the fact that it hasn’t been the scale of Booker’s tweets or deeds, but rather his consistency and commitment, that has most amazed me. From early morning to late night, from house fires to (just this evening) a cat stuck on a roof, the mayor has used the forum of Twitter to remain engaged with those in his city. Just as President Obama has bemoaned the White House bubble, Booker has used his tweets to remain immersed in the daily Newark conversation. He’s also used Twitter as a forum for activism, a means of bragging about his city’s accomplishments and a channel through which he can help residents with everything from administrative questions to inspirational quotes.