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Community Counts: Real Participation in the Debates

BY Joshua Levy | Tuesday, June 26 2007

When YouTube and CNN announced they were co-sponsoring a presidential debate that invited YouTube users to submit video questions and that — they said — would revolutionize debate formats, we didn’t think they went far enough. Now, others are stepping in to do their work for them.

There are two parts to opening up a platform like these debates to the community:

1) Let individuals participate in unprecedented ways
2) Give up control of the voting to the community

YouTube and CNN were good at the first criterion; they’ve invited everyone to contribute their videos, and have even reached out to voters who aren’t online or using video. But they’ve been surprisingly top-down when it comes to selecting which videos to show the candidates. Claiming that any prior knowledge of the videos would give the candidates an unfair advantage, CNN’s editors will select the questions to be asked at the debate, taking a critical function of social sites like YouTube away from YouTube’s users, much like the way that social data was removed from YouTube videos last week.

Many of us thought it would be more fair to everyone if the users themselves selected which videos to show the candidates.

To fill this void, David Colarusso, a high school phsyics teacher from Lexington, MA currently teaching on a Fulbright scholarship in Scotland, has produced a new feature on his site Community Counts, which let’s YouTube users vote for their favorite Spotlight video every week — that lets the public vote for their favorite video question.

As Colarusso puts it, the point of Community Counts is to "leverage the community’s voice to compel the candidates to address the questions most valued by the group. To ignore our collective voice is to risk alienating the very voters they court. All we need are sufficient numbers." The CNN/YouTube debates, then, are a natural fit for this mission.

The debate voting feature is set up simply. It lists twenty videos per page (more than that basically shuts your browser down), sortable by the number of positive votes (“Counts”), total number of votes (“Activity), and the date posted. There are “Answer” and “Ignore” buttons connected to each video; if you like a video, click “Answer”; if you don’t, click “Ignore.” The videos with the most positive votes, or “Counts,” float to the top. Voting is limited to one vote for your favorite video and one vote for your least favorite video; Voting is limited to one vote for and against each video; you can vote for as many videos as you like. The votes are tracked by IP address to minimize tomfoolery. David’s also added some real-time AJAX-y controls so you can see the votes automagically update.

So far, the videos cover some unexpected topics: the most popular is from a woman called “ladyjade3,” who talks about gun control and claims that the way to peace is to arm every household. The second video is from “Charmagne” in Ontario, who asks about the relationship between Canada and the U.S.

As the site gains attention it could be come a viable alternative to the top-down editorial strategy employed by CNN — imagine if the number-one video on Community Counts had thousands of positive votes; it would be conceivable that the editors at CNN could be convinced to include it based on its popularity. It’s even possible that a presidential candidate could be persuaded to advocate for these videos’ inclusion…

So check out the site and get voting!