Last night I witnessed one of the greatest moments of community and political engagement of our time.
It was on Twitch, a streaming video game platform.
There, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spent a few hours playing the video game “Among Us” with other gamers…and not taking about politics. At one point while playing the game she threw off a casual “Return your absentee ballots early,” but a stump speech, this was not. Ocasio-Cortez was there to play the game and hang out with the gaming community.
Her Twitch debut is one of the largest in the platform’s history, likely ranking in the top ten highest-viewed individual streams of all time with, at one point, over 435,000 people tuning in.
I was one of them. I’m not a gamer, but I’m married to one, and Twitch is regularly streaming in our house. It was fascinating to watch Ocasio-Cortez’s stream blow up in real time. Chat comments were coming in so quickly, they were unreadable. Twitter was ablaze with gamers of all ages sharing their excitement for having Ocasio-Cortez in their world. My husband, watching the viewer count tick up, got swept up in the excitement. “I’ve never watched a stream with this many people tuned in,” he said in awe. “This is so fun.”
It really was. While Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance had been touted on social media as an opportunity for her to talk about voting, she didn’t do much talking about voting, and during the time I watched, shared no partisan political opinions. At one point she mused that she likes to know the “lore” of video games, like how the characters got to where they are and what their world is like outside of the game, but she never once took up the ominous tone of a political rally. She screamed and yelled as winners and losers were revealed, like any gamer. She laughed a lot. She streamed for a few hours, obviously in no hurry to leave. She was utterly genuine and completely likeable.
Partisanship aside, what Ocasio-Cortez nailed on Twitch and brings to her politics is that natural ability to be genuine. She knows when to be professional, and she knows when she can let her hair down, be herself, and slaughter four characters in a video game with absolute glee. She has struck a perfect balance between political warrior (or adversary, depending on viewpoint) and the girl you meet at a party that you cannot wait to hang out with. Based on Tuesday night’s Twitch viewership, it’s an ingenious political strategy to win over followers.
Except, let’s be clear: it’s not just a strategy, it’s just who she is. And as local government and elected officials struggle to connect with citizens and build engagement in their communities, that’s the lesson to learn from Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitch appearance. Be real, meet people where they are, and talk about their stuff, not your stuff. The people will follow.
Too often, attempts to connect with constituents on their terms are forced to the point of being farcical. The politician, stiff in a suit and tie, will go to a neighborhood watering hole or busy corner diner, grimly sip a beer or nurse a cup of coffee, have a few stoic conversations around prepared talking points, and get out as quickly as possible. It’s obvious these attempts are staged and that the political leader, who should be working for the people, cannot wait to get away from them. In short, they fail.
Conversely, there are others like Ocasio-Cortez who don’t have a script and are in no hurry to cut their time with the people short. They’re comfortable in any situation, they can enjoy themselves, and they can naturally connect. Like her Twitch stream, these attempts at engagement succeed.
Whether you’re a municipal employee responsible for engagement or an elected official, if you don’t have the ability to connect with people and don’t make the effort to meet them where they are, you’re never going to reach them. Go to gyms. Go to tabletop game stores. Hit up shopping centers and craft stores. Take in a rec league ballgame. Too often we focus our efforts on meeting with our people on our terms – at city hall, or maybe, if we’re going wild, at city events or in city parks; or online, via the chaotic world of social media or in cold digital forums – and we devote too much of our time to carefully shaping and crafting those interactions rather than just letting interactions happen. We stay within these confines and don’t make much effort to spend time within the niches of our community and really get to know the people within. Turns out you don’t need a big budget and you don’t need a lot of time to do so. You need to do a little research in advance (Ocasio-Cortez said she had not played the game before but had done a crash course in preparation for Tuesday’s stream), you need to be present, and you need to be comfortable and real. If you can’t, it should come as no surprise when your engagement efforts fall short.
Municipalities will benefit from finding more casual opportunities to engage – like perhaps on a streaming video game service – than agonizing over how to mold every step of their interaction with our populace as we do now. Meaningful engagement doesn’t happen in public forums, in online surveys, or at municipal facilities. It happens when people are just being people. If we can take a cue from AOC and take more chances to simply spend time with our people, we’ll connect more and ultimately become better public servants.