POV interactive director Theresa Riley was in Washington D.C. last week for the presidential inauguration. She tells us about watching — and documenting — the inauguration from the ground.

Theresa Riley
A few days after the election in November, Thursday the 6th to be precise, I called up my congresswoman’s D.C. office and asked to be put on the list for tickets to the inauguration. The receptionist told me I’d need to leave a voicemail to get on the list. “Is this a popular request?” I asked. He laughed and deadpanned, “Uh, yeah.”

So I waited for the beep and said I wanted four tickets, thinking that if I was extremely lucky, I might get two, but also feeling that it was pretty unlikely I would get any tickets at all. I figured my representative, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, might get more tickets than other representatives, but I also figured she probably owed a lot of favors. I assumed that wealthy donors would be first on the list, ahead of people like myself — a political nobody who can’t afford to contribute large sums of money to campaigns and has no connections whatsoever.

Nonetheless, I made my travel plans. I found a friend’s aunt to crash with and recruited a group of friends to join me for the trip. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we would probably be standing on the Mall, hopefully with a view of a Jumbotron, or at the very least within earshot of loud speakers so we might witness this momentous occasion in person.

Tickets to Barack Obama's inauguration

I was pleasantly surprised.

Early in January I received an email from Pelosi’s office informing me that I had received four tickets to Barack Obama’s inauguration, and that I should email back if I would like to “accept these tickets.” I was in shock. I felt like Charlie Bucket. I couldn’t believe it.

I excitedly texted my friends and we accepted our tickets without delay. When we arrived in D.C., we were delighted to discover that we were the recipients of two seated tickets and two standing tickets, which was wonderful because one of my friends appreciated the seat for medical reasons. Pelosi’s office had really gone all out. It made me so happy that the process was executed so fairly and thoughtfully. My faith in democracy was strengthened, my cynicism put in check. How amazing was it that Pelosi’s office had set aside tickets for regular Josies like myself? I mean, really, how cool was that?

Now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with POV? Here’s the thing: As soon as we hit the streets, I began taking photos — of the swarms of people, of the piles of swag, of the preparations, the security, basically anything that struck me as interesting — and I dutifully tagged them for NPR’s Inauguration Report feature and also uploaded images and commentary to Facebook and Twitter several times a day throughout the weekend. I wanted my friends who couldn’t be there with me to experience some of what was happening. Truth is, D.C. was one big party — one big party that lasted for days — and I wanted to document that conviviality and excitement, and share it with everyone I know.

Obama inauguration commemorative items for sale, complete with shopping bags

Some of the commemorative items for sale in the streets of D.C. last weekend complete with commemorative shopping bags to carry them in.

I was a little hesitant about it at times. I’m not a teenager or a twentysomething, and I’m not used to being as vocal as that generation online. Am I inundating my network with these photos? Are people annoyed with me for posting so much? I thought, whatever, they could just ignore my tweet and photo barrage if they weren’t interested. I knew that I would want to see what was going on from a different perspective from CNN’s (and their repetitive “Moment” coverage) if I wasn’t there in person. I’d think it would be much more fun to get a view of the proceedings from someone I know on the streets. And I got a great response: Friends seemed to like it. So I kept at it.

And as you know, I wasn’t the only one with (practically) frostbitten fingers and crackberry-cramped hands. This inauguration was not only the most attended in history, but also surely the most documented. Looking around at the crowds assembled on the Mall for the “We Are One” concert and the inauguration, I saw a sea of faces, but almost as many cameras, video cameras and camera phones. One of my favorite memories (documented below) is the D.C. firemen who served as impromtu photographers for the masses, kindly snapping photos from their opportune vantage point atop one of D.C’s firetrucks. I stood there for 15 minutes watching them take picture after picture up and down the Mall. I’m pretty sure they were doing it all afternoon.

D.C. firemen taking pictures for crowd

D.C. firemen took photos for the crowd from the top of their truck.

To give you an idea of the copious amounts of chronicling going on inside the Beltway last weekend, Flickr boasts nearly 10,000 images tagged with the official Twitter hash tag for the inauguration (#inaug09) and nearly 100,000 photos tagged with “obama” and “inaguration.” YouTube videos tagged similarly surpass 40,000. This was the first inauguration where you could get a sense of what it was like to be in the crowd from the perspective of the crowd in real time, through Twitter, Flickr, Facebook status updates and a number of social networking sites too numerous to list.

To someone who has been working online for over 12 years, last weekend represented a major milestone on the information superhighway. How long have we been heralding the potential of the Internet? If my cell phone had only gotten a signal(*), I could have tweeted a stream of real-time photos to everyone I know, called my mom, texted with my friends in London and India, monitored other friends’ experiences on the Mall, and probably 10 other things — all from my seat on the Capitol lawn. Talk about a mass medium!

*We’re not there yet, but I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.

If you’re interested, view my Flickr photo sets: Barack Obama Inauguration Weekend and Inauguration Day.

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