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It Worked! Though Not a Revolution, The YouTube Debate Impressed

BY Colin Delany | Tuesday, July 24 2007

Cross-posted on e.politics

The YouTube debate may not have revolutionized politics, but it sure as hell was more of a pleasure to watch than your average political event. I'd read both hype and skepticism in the days beforehand, and I suspect that ultimately the new format will have a bigger effect on the debates themselves than on the political process. Still, it brought home the hollowness of much of our scripted political speech, since those candidates who could break through the rhetoric and talk with a human voice really stood out. And it demonstrated the real potential of citizen politics — sometimes a million monkeys banging away on keyboards WILL produce quality.

At first, I was more interested in the candidates' responses than in the questions, but that rapidly changed — within the first half-hour, I was already excited to see each new clip. As my colleague David Newland has pointed out, many of the videos used sophisticated production values, including good sound, lighting and editing, and they generally stayed focused and on-target. Even the cutesy ones (talking snowman!) got their point across.

What was fascinating was how real they felt — these were people filmed in places where they live or work or hang out, often speaking to the camera as they would speak to a friend. Some people clearly read their questions or seemed self-conscious and stiff, but most felt real and loose (the reparations guy, the "blanking war" guy, the lesbian couple, the health care montage). As John Dickerson put it in Slate:

In the privacy of their homes, people were at ease, and their videos reflected that. They sounded human. Had the same people been standing in the auditorium at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., asking questions, they would have frozen up or tried to sound too polished.

You could really tell the difference when the minister from North Carolina, who'd asked a question about religious faith and homosexuality, stood up in the audience and spoke to the TV camera — he was clearly self-conscious in front of the crowd and in the lights, and he seemed stiff and indecisive compared with his recorded self.

The big loser was traditional political rhetoric — every time candidates veered off into talking points, I started to drift off myself, but when they spoke as they would in a normal conversation, I would tend to perk up and listen. The format humanized the candidates — with people asking unstilted questions, stilted answers felt hollow. Barak Obama was the most disappointing by this measure, since I would have preferred to see him loosen up and talk more WITH the crowd than AT it, but Chris Dodd was saved only by my low expectations — and he definitely beat everyone on the political-platitudes front. Hillary Clinton impressed, and Joe Biden was a hoot — the truth-tellin' Joe was in the house (did I hear him say "damn" at the end? Damn!).

Many people have pointed out that the questions also broke from the usual Sunday morning talk show mold. According to Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut in the Post:

The citizen-interrogators generated the most diverse set of questions in any of the presidential debates to date and challenged the candidates to break out of the rhetoric of their campaign speeches and to address sometimes uncomfortable issues, such as race, gender, religion and their own vulnerabilities.

The big winner, besides the American electorate? YouTube, and by extension, Google (which, by the way, apparently knows how to treat reporters). YouTube's brand was EVERYWHERE, along with CNN's, to the point that I started to get annoyed at how much real estate was devoted to branding and little was used to show the videos (the text-heavy ones in particular were almost impossible to decipher). YouTube's political channel was already a heavyweight in the online political world, and this debate helped it put on a few more strategic pounds.

In the end, I'd rate this as a victory for social media and for the concept of direct citizen involvement in politics. Kudos to CNN's political team for picking excellent questions. Beware, though, my mainstream media friends: as the Chicago Tribune's Steve Johnson put it, "it was a bad night for news anchors and Washington bureau chiefs, the traditional interrogators of would-be holders of American high office."

For more, YouTube's debate channel has the actual video questions, CNN has a transcript and The Politico has a nice wrap-up.

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