February 20, 2013



WAVERLY - The "Iowa Nice" guy - he of the snark and snarl, the Internet sensation with the clockmaker's timing for profanity - talked of being nice. Honestly. For real. Even in a virtual world.

"We have to somehow transition into listening again," Scott Siepker said.

Siepker, a Mount Carmel native and Drake University professor whose star turn in the spirited defense-of-Iowa video earned him national attention, spoke one-on-one with U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, an eastern Iowa Democrat, in a forum on the intersection of social media and politics at Wartburg College in Waverly Tuesday night. About 60 people turned out in zero-degree weather at the college's business building.

The two men are among the bright lights in social media, on Facebook and Twitter, in Iowa. Braley, who is seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Tom Harkin, lists 14,617 "followers" on Twitter. These are people who have access to his 140-character-or-less typed thoughts that blast onto smartphones in Kirk-to-Enterprise time. Siepker has 3,337 Twitter followers.

Braley said he has no illusions about holding positions of high public profile. You're going to take heat, lots of it, he said.

"If you're going to run for elected office today, you better have a thick skin," Braley said.

He said the unrelenting pace of comments to what he posts on his Facebook account can be overwhelming at times, with people seemingly spending an entire day trolling the social-networking site, tossing barbs at anyone else who offers views in the public forum.

But is politics different from other endeavors in that sense? Braley said discussion groups, chat rooms and the like, on websites dealing with, say, antique cars, can reveal vicious exchanges as well.

"It's a cultural phenomenon that this is what you do once you log in," Braley said.

Siepker urged more evidence-based discussion on the Internet.

"Falsehoods and misguidings already drive a Lamborghini, and truths travel by horse-and-buggy," Siepker said.

Braley said he relies on sources like the Union of Concerned Scientists for information to gird his positions.

The Waterloo congressman, an attorney, said people interacting on the Web should strive to be true to themselves - something Braley said U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has mastered on Twitter.

"Whatever you think of his tweets, you know they're authentic," Braley said.

Too many elected officials have their younger staff members handle social media for them, which Braley thinks is counterproductive.

"The people who follow you can spot a phony a mile away," Braley said.

Siepker and Braley, who had never held a forum together, showed an easy rapport. At one point, Siepker said he had no problem with audience members using their cellphones to text or post messages on Facebook and Twitter - when Braley was talking, that is.

"I don't want you on your phones when I'm talking," joked Siepker, a Carroll High School alum.

For part of the forum, which lasted more than an hour, Braley questioned Siepker about the development of the "Iowa Nice" video in early 2012, how it changed Siepker's life. The "Iowa Nice" guy last fall even found a spot on ESPN.

Produced in response to stereotyping of Iowa by the media, "Iowa Nice" has well over 1 million views on YouTube. The 2-minute video seeks to debunk certain coastal narratives about Iowa being a cultural monolith of prejudiced reactionaries. Siepker, and "Iowa Nice" director, his longtime theatrical collaborator, Paul D. Benedict, have seen their work go viral with features on CNN International, MSNBC and BBC World News.

"Since then, of course, everything has changed," said Siepker, 30.

He added, "Now, I get to sit down with people like you and have a conversation."

But Siepker made it clear that what you see on YouTube or ESPN is not what you get in person.

"I am not like the 'Iowa Nice' guy," Siepker said. "I am not that mean or snarky or cool."

Humor, Siepker said, can be a powerful tool if used effectively.

"When you get people laughing, they start listening," he said.

Siepker, a registered independent, said after the event that's he interested in pursuing the similar forums around Iowa with more politicians or reprising the Braley exchange in other locations.