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Facebook, Yahoo NH Debate Roles Leave Us Wanting More

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, January 11 2012

Before they fade further into the past, a quick note on last weekend's back-to-back presidential debates in New Hampshire and the role of online platforms therein. In case you've forgotten, I'm talking about the ABC News/Yahoo event Saturday night and the NBC/Facebook event Sunday morning. And neither made a dent, when it comes to using interactive media to involve the public in the debates.

For the record, according to a transcript, Yahoo was mentioned four times during the ABC event, and co-moderator Diane Sawyer sourced one question back to Yahoo, saying "Yahoo! sends us questions, as you know. We have them from real viewers. And I’d like to post one, because it is about gay marriage." (Yes, her overall performance was so bad it inspired a Twitter hashtag: #dianesawyerquestions.) Neither Sawyer nor her co-moderator George Stephanopolous mentioned the far more interesting live viewer feedback being collected online by Yahoo. Thus the fact that 3/4 of those responding were dissatisfied by Romney's answer to a question about Afghanistan, or more than 80% of the audience wanted to hear more about the candidates' job creation plans, never made it into the actual debate discussion, where it might have meant something. It was an opportunity wasted, and surprising given that a tidbit of Yahoo-generated feedback was actually used during the previous ABC debate.

According to the transcript, Facebook got four mentions during Sunday morning's NBC News debate, and host David Gregory referred directly to the site once, to source a generic question about taxes, which apparently he needed Facebook to show that it was a subject of public interest. ("Governor Romney, there's a lot of discussion-- a lot of discussion this morning on Facebook about taxes." "No shit, Sherlock.") Other than that, nada.

Now, I suppose defenders of Facebook and people who think social media is "forever transform[ing] the political process" (that's Pete Cashmore of Mashable on the New Hampshire primary) will argue that I'm ignoring the fact that thousands of people contributed questions and comments via Facebook during the debate, and that this had the effect of extending the debate's reach into their friends' newsfeeds. That is certainly true, but to what effect? The debate chatter on Facebook was about as consequential as real-life chatter around the office water-cooler. Except for one thing: to join in the conversation on the NBC Facebook page, you first had to "like" NBC. Which means that the real winners of the NBC-Facebook partnership weren't actually the voters, but NBC, which gained followers, and Facebook, which reinforced its brand.

Sorry to sound like a broken record, but it doesn't have to be this way--even in a media world where viewers are the product being sold to advertisers. Indeed, as Twitter showed in its White House Town Hall, which managed to push President Obama outside his comfort zone with real-time feedback, and with its failed but interesting experiment with using #answer or #dodge tags during a Fox News debate in December, it's possible to integrate social media into live political events in ways that can actually make a difference.

It's only when that conversation is transparent, searchable, linkable and ideally, plugged back into the actual event, that these collaborations between news organizations and digital platforms becomes meaningful. There's still plenty more opportunities ahead for this to happen, and we'll be rooting for them.

[Disclosure: As readers of this site surely know, we've long argued for creating meaningful feedback loops using interactive technology, and we have produced several runs of a demonstration of that idea under the banner of 10Question.com. And those efforts have led the Knight Foundation to support Personal Democracy's 2010 version of 10Questions, and also led the Omidyar Network to give us a small planning grant to convene a meeting of political media and technology leaders last August for a lively conversation about ways that organizations and individuals might use tech to open up the 2012 process. Partially as a result of those discussions, the folks at Yahoo News asked us to provide some consulting to them about their online journalism efforts around the election.]