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How People in Brooklyn "Dual-Screened" the Vice Presidential Debate

BY Nick Judd | Friday, October 12 2012

Someone threw tomatoes at Joe Biden last night.

It was during the vice-presidential debate, a few moments after Biden dropped his well-received "malarkey" line. Paul Ryan was attempting to press Biden on Libya, and it was becoming apparent that the vice president was out to turn the debate into a win as much through style as through substance.

"What were you first told about the attack?" Martha Raddatz asked,according to the transcript. "Why -- why were people talking about protests? When people in the consulate first saw armed men attacking with guns, there were no protesters. Why did that go on (inaudible)?"

Biden seemed to challenge every line from Ryan on Thursday night, whether interrupting the House Budget Committee chairman or decorating his own face with a grin so large that the Republican candidate may have been distracted by the glare from the vice president's teeth. "Laughing Joe Biden" is on its way to becoming an Internet thing. He fielded Raddatz's question with similar confidence.

"Because that was exactly what we were told by the intelligence community. The intelligence community told us that," he said. "As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment."

As for requests for more security, Biden said, "we weren't told they wanted more security there." It was the kind of line that a reporter might have challenged in a one-on-one interview, foreshadowed by the answer's vague beginnings. After all, we were hearing just a day after the attacks that the video was an insufficient explanation. But this was a debate, and Raddatz's job was to moderate a give-and-take between Biden and Ryan. Instead, she threw a question to Ryan about "apologies ... for Americans."

This was not good enough for one viewer, though. A lone tomato appeared, splattering near Biden's face.

The ruby fruit wasn't real — it was a digital missile lobbed through Tomatovision, an extracurricular project by a team from Huffington Post Labs. Over two weekends, the crew built a website to host a live video stream of the debate, along with the option to launch up to three virtual tomatoes in response to any line the viewer dislikes. A mobile application and mobile website offer the chance to control the tomatoes remotely while watching a bigger screen. Whenever any user, anywhere, threw a tomato, everyone tuned in to saw it land — creating, in a goofy way, a new community around the debate for the small contingent of mostly younger people who are experiencing these events across two screens.

It also gave people permission to laugh. At a debate-watch party at The Bell House, a bar in Brooklyn's swampy Gowanus neighborhood, Labs' director Conor White-Sullivan and crew set up a giant screen to entertain the crowd with Tomatovision. As the room filled up it became clear that the Brooklyn audience was skewed, as you might expect, in favor of Biden and against Ryan. But the house was quiet when Ryan began to gamely rebut Biden on Iran — one of many points on which the Republican fiscal-policy champion seemed outmatched — with the easily taken-out-of-context line, "Let's look at this from the view of the ayatollahs."

Then a tomato flew, and the room broke into peals of laughter.

The vice-presidential nominee got the worst of it after the debate turned to abortion. Around the time Ryan said the words "safe, legal and rare," the crowd at the Bell House — and a smattering of remote viewers at their laptops around the world — saw Ryan pelted with a barrage of fruit. Whether it was the work of several of the few viewers using the app or, more likely, a rogue developer, doesn't matter — what viewers saw was a sort of critique of Ryan's line on abortion.

The outcome as seen in real time through this little digital toy was about the same as the one now being resolved by the pundits. For media spectacle, Biden certainly walked out with the stronger performance. He harried Ryan any time the younger man spoke and did as much to project confidence and enthusiasm as he possibly could. After Mitt Romney's aggressive performance at the first presidential debate, it was Biden's turn to be painted as either victorious or rude, depending on who you asked.

Eating Chinese take-out and checking Twitter mentions in one corner of the room as knots of people stood talking and watching, White-Sullivan quietly admitted to me that just getting this little app to work and not angering his employers, who were not involved in the project, would be success enough. The twentysomething joined Huffington Post after co-founding Localocracy, a platform for small towns to discuss legislation and policy ideas on the web. AOL Huffington Post Media Group acquired the platform, and White-Sullivan got his current gig. While entertaining, Tomatovision does not have quite as fragrant a bouquet of Jeffersonian democracy as some of his previous work. If more people had been using Tomatovision, maybe its creators could have counted how many times each candidate was basted in lycopene and shared the results. They probably would also have been asked if it was entirely appropriate to take what was supposed to be a very serious conversation about our nation's future and turn it into a spectacle evaluated more like American Idol than political discourse.

Then again, there this:

So maybe the work of reducing the debates to gladiatorial combat has already been done.

One might also add that pelting the candidates with rotten fruit, real or otherwise, reflects what's already on the minds of many nonvoters. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released in August found that 59 percent of respondents, asked why they don't pay much attention to politics, agreed with the statement, "nothing ever gets done; its a bunch of empty promises." Another 54 percent agreed with the statement, "it is so corrupt." Bathing the vice president and a prominent member of Congress in digital pasta sauce might be a little too risqué for a major media outlet, but it certainly jibes with what a consequential number of Americans think. At least this way those feelings have a trajectory and a visibility that wouldn't otherwise exist.

A dial-test of a nationally representative sample of Americans is a data set; an exploding tomato is absurd, but it's also a political statement. And a few people who might otherwise tune out, might not see a groan-worthy line for what it is or read about it in the endless post-debate coverage, might be persuaded to see the show for themselves.