You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

What YouTube Election?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, March 2 2007

Jeff Jarvis has started a terrific new blog called PrezVid, where he is documenting and analyzing "The YouTube Campaign 2008." I'm a big fan of Jeff's work; he's one of the sharpest thinkers in the new media world and also one of the best on-his-feet moderators that I've ever seen.

But I want to pick a bone with what Jeff's been writing about YouTube and, by extension, the impact of online video on the election. He's got a set of very good arguments for why we should pay attention to the form:

First, almost every one of the presidential candidates is using YouTube and internet video to open up a new channel to voters....this is an eye-to-eye medium that lets the candidates speak directly to individuals on a small screen instead of from a big platform. It lets them control the message and set the agenda and tone. It enables them to bypass the soundbiting of network news (yes, the messages are still short, but you can say a helluva lot more in two minutes than in 10 seconds and you can control what is said).

Second, voters in the field are taping everything the candidates do. I say this is good; it makes the campaigns more public. Will we have our macaca moments? Oh, you bet. Sometimes, this will reveal the candidates’ true character. But sometimes, it will merely confirm that we’re all human and all screw up. The question will be: how well will media and the electorate distinguish between the two?

Third, this allows us, the voters, to see the candidates in a new light. Of course, they are still controlled and stage-managed. But still, more exposure to them that we get, the better we can judge both their words and their character. See the change not just in what Mitt Romney said but in how he acted in 1994 versus today (more on that later).

Fourth, internet video helps us speak back to the candidates. The politicians are trying to manage this as well: see McCain with his questions via YouTube. But there’ll be plenty of uncontrolled talking-back: see The Real McCain.

Fifth, this will give us all an opportunity to see the campaign commercials that, in recent years, could be seen only in battleground states. I hope this will put a harsher light on filthy campaigning. We’ll see.

Well, while all these arguments are valid, I think Jeff is conceding too much to a way of thinking that has grown up around campaigns ever since politics collided with television. Campaigns love TV and fear it at the same time because as a medium that a) reaches masses of people at once, and b) is expensive to get onto, you can either use it to very powerful effect or be mortally hurt by it.

But TV as a mass medium is slowly but surely dying. And the new world of online video is radically different in one critical way. Instead of scarcity, it's a world of abundance. (Hat tip to Chris Anderson for the essential insight.) My colleague Andrew Rasiej and I spelled out the implications of this in our latest column for the Politico:

Picture this: Every day, a major candidate for the highest office in the land spends a few minutes talking into a video camera held by an aide. Then the recordings are posted, with very minor editing, to the his Web site. On some days, they show him on the street, talking casually about the visit he's making to a local business or a day care center. On other days, he's sitting in his office, giving candid responses to the top five questions that have been posted to his blog, as chosen by visitors to his site.

The videos are all generally unscripted; the settings are unencumbered by props; and the camera work is about as good as any tourist's visiting the zoo.

If you think this is a fantasy, don't. This, in a nutshell, is how David Cameron, the youthful leader of Britain's opposition Conservative Party, has been taking advantage of online video since he launched his "Webcameron" site last fall. His casual and extended videos have not hurt his popularity; right now, Cameron's Conservatives are leading the ruling Labor Party by 13 percentage points in a recent poll.

For all the talk of this being the "YouTube Election," however, none of the current candidates for president of the United States is doing anything close to what Cameron is doing. Yes, they know they can use their Web sites to broadcast video to potential supporters. But so far, not one presidential campaign has demonstrated that it understands the difference between video online and video on TV. That's because they all apparently think video online is just television on a smaller screen.

In the old world of televised politicking, broadcast time is expensive and scarce. Because of that, politicians learned to speak in sound bites to get their message across quickly. On-camera "gaffes" are feared for what they might reveal. Campaign commercials are rehearsed and scripted as much as possible. The voter gets a carefully packaged view of the candidate. Spin rules, and media consultants get rich from their commissions on buying TV time.

But this approach deprives voters of a real "unscripted" view of the candidate. We pounce on gaffes, believing, as Michael Kinsley memorably said, that a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth -- "or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head."

In the new world of online video, broadband is cheap and plentiful. Instead of sound bites, a candidate can speak in full paragraphs. He or she can do a daily video blog, or even several, because digital storage is practically unlimited and bandwidth costs are minimal. Like Cameron, he or she can talk to us in the context of their actual lives in relation to the issues at hand. They can talk while washing the dishes, walking to work, reacting to the news of the day or responding directly to questions that we, the voters, have chosen. The voter can get a more realistic view of the candidate as a sometimes fallible human being who, like all of us, struggles to be heard and has something real to say.

There's nothing stopping any of the presidential campaigns from adopting this approach before the 2008 race heats up. Instead of relying on spin, they can give us authenticity.

But first they have to understand that the Web is different. It is a world of abundance, not scarcity. Power, reach and influence will flow to the first campaign that grasps this difference.

I have a feeling that Jeff may well agree with this analysis, and the only place where we may disagree is on our estimate of what a campaign may be prepared to risk. He's essentially saying, I think, campaigns are still going to want control and to project a carefully designed image, even if online video allows a candidate to be more casual and perhaps "himself" or "herself." I'm saying, that's not enough; we want the real thing and now there's no external reason why we can't have it.