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Let the Two-Way Conversation Begin

BY Editors | Monday, July 2 2007

[Eds. note: This is an editorial from the creators of Community Counts, a site that aggregates YouTube Spotlight videos and lets users vote for their favorites, with the goal of “compelling the candidates to answer the questions most valued by the community." We think the group offers a powerful argument for the importance of using YouTube to encourage a two-way conversation between voters and candidates.]

With the 2008 Presidential race underway, it’s clear the Internet is revolutionizing the process of campaigning. Fundraising, mobilization, and the announcement of candidacies have all migrated to the Web. Candidates join social networking sites like MySpace. Viral videos share gaffes alongside electioneered laughs, and the online debates are coming. What we haven’t seen, however, is that most tantalizing of potential benefits: a truly independent, open, and national dialogue—the flattening of democracy. To achieve this, citizens must use the Internet to harness the “wisdom of crowds” and then convince politicians to heed that wisdom.

Esse Quam Videri (to be, rather than to seem), North Carolina’s state motto, might as well be the rallying cry of Internet democracy. The Kennedy-Nixon debate marked the growing importance of image in American politics. It mattered that Nixon wasn’t wearing makeup, and candidates now rely on media consultants. Consequently, many Americans see politicians as a collection of sound bites and glossy imagery. The Internet’s promise is that we can turn this tide by engaging with candidates in unfiltered and direct conversation.

On April 11th YouTube announced the You Choose Spotlight, an opportunity for candidates to engage in discussion with the YouTube community. Candidates upload a video, and for a week, users of the site post replies. At week’s end the candidates respond.

When the candidates started posting their questions to YouTube, the community got excited. It was like having the candidates over for a group dinner. They might not talk to you personally, but they would at least listen to what the group had to say. What’s more, if enough people at the table pressed, they might even commit to something more than small talk.

There was one problem, however. The candidates didn’t see this like a town hall meeting or fish fry. Instead, many of them saw it as another broadcast opportunity, one sided and closed. Some of the candidates, for example, chose not to approve any negative replies to their videos. If candidates see these forums as extensions of one-way broadcasts, it makes sense they wouldn’t want to dilute their message with negative comments. However, given that users see them as discussions, candidates risk alienating the very community they are reaching out to. Openness isn’t only respected on sites like YouTube; it is expected. You don’t win voters by failing to meet expectations.

The same goes for impersonal-generic video replies come week’s end. If you’re going to solicit user videos and reply in kind, you had best respond to those videos valued by the community. At the same time, the community needs to come together and direct candidates to those issues it values most. Here, the Internet offers a solution: an independent nonpartisan filter that aggregates public opinion in real time.

A few weeks into YouTube’s Spotlight, a group of users put forth an idea. Why don’t the candidates answer the questions YouTubers want them to answer, not just the ones they choose for themselves? We were those users, and from our dorm rooms and apartments we launched a website featuring the candidates’ videos and the community’s replies. There we asked viewers to vote for the videos they wanted answered, and we challenged candidates to respond. Popular videos rose to the top; others sank. What is required to reach the Internet’s promise is the creation and acceptance of systems such as this. We at Community Counts are doing our part. Our current mashup allows visitors to vote on questions for this month’s YouTube/CNN debate.

The end result is unavoidable. Given enough people, the candidates can’t help but reply. So we’re writing this with three wishes in mind. One, let’s start making the platforms. To all those politically-inclined programmers out there, get coding. Two, all of us need to vote with our mouse. A click or two now means a better look at our candidates and a clearer choice come election day. If enough of us participate, we cancel out the crackpots, putting the questions we value center stage. Finally, we ask that the candidates pioneer this dialogue. Commit now to answering the questions of the American people as revealed by such systems. Of course, an occasionally awkward question will slip through, but this happens at town hall meetings as well. It’s just that now, for the first time, the town hall is a whole lot bigger.

Written by David Colarusso, James Kotecki, Jamie Bernstein, Esther Brady (www.communitycounts.us)

David Colarusso, James Kotecki, Jamie Bernstein, and Esther Brady are all active YouTube members/vloggers and contributors to www.CommunityCounts.US, a mashup of YouTube videos aimed at compelling the candidates to answer the questions most valued by the community. Colarusso founded Community Counts a few months ago, recruiting Kotecki, Bernstein, and Brady to help promote the page and contribute content. The Economist called Kotecki “probably the world’s foremost expert on YouTube videos posted by presidential candidates.” Bernstein holds a BS in public management and policy. Brady is currently finishing her MS in international relations, and Colarusso is a high school physics teacher on Fulbright exchange to Edinburgh, Scotland.