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The Internet is TV. Twitter is the Internet.

BY Patrick Ruffini | Thursday, December 18 2008

I've been thinking a bit about the relative pecking order of new media since I posted on the relative second-tier status of Twitter last week. This thinking led me to blurt out the following on Twitter:

Theory: The broader Internet is now like TV, and Twitter is the new Internet -- the medium for scrappy political underdog

One of the paradoxes of Barack Obama's campaign is that he ran a very corporate, celebrity-driven campaign in a medium seen as homegrown and egalitatian. Previous Internet sensations included Ron Paul, Howard Dean, and John McCain in 2000 (hard as that it to believe). He defied much of the conventional wisdom of the political Internet, which held, among other things, that web video cannot be well-produced.

Hidden in all of this is the fact that the Internet is now a mass medium. More people watched the Sarah Palin SNL skits on Hulu than live on television. Obama videos were watched for 1 billion minutes on YouTube. That works out to about 7 minutes for every American that voted on November 4th, or the equivalent of 14 thirty second spots.

The Internet has become television. Or, at least, there is now a powerful streak within the Internet that allows broadly popular candidates with mass (not niche) appeal to survive. This has coincided with the rise of web video, which allows the pecking order of celebrity in the offline world to be recreated online.

The two most popular candidates online were Barack Obama... and Hillary Clinton. These were the two celebrities, not the two underdogs. And though Obama couldn't have beaten Clinton without the Internet, was Obama really that far outside the mold? Howard Dean actually pulling it off in 2004 -- which was one or two weeks away from actually happening -- would have been far more shocking. On the Perez Hilton Internet, celebrity rules.

At the same time, the Internet is specifically like reality television. Much has been made of the "transparency" of Change.gov -- but it actually is to real transparency what reality TV is to reality. Submitting your story on why the health system sucks does not allow you to discuss alternatives to some sort of nationalization of the health system under Obama. It's using Web 2.0 and the illusion of openness to support an existing policy position which is unlikely to change. The politicians are using the Internet to justify what they were going to do anyway. This is very shrewd on their part, but a far cry from what transparency advocates say they are for. Just look at this video. Does anyone believe this was the real meeting?

And if the Internet is big enough to be co-opted for mainstream use, where do the insurgents go? They go to Twitter, which (at least for now) is still an outpost that favors the scrappy, authentic outsiders -- kind of like the early Internet. Relative longshot candidates are using Twitter to fundraise. It's also the ultimate cut-the-BS medium -- it's low-cost enough that principals can plausibly maintain their own accounts, and instantaneous and conversational enough that you can really tell when they actually are. And while Barack Obama is still top dog on Twitter, he has shut down his account since the election, and never used it in the ways it was meant to be used (e.g. to @ reply to anyone).

This dichotomy helps explain why traditional "new" media like e-mail is so much bigger and more influential than Twitter, but also why we need Twitter to separate out the men from the boys at the grassroots level. Incidentally, newly insurgent and outsider Republicans are twittering are twice the rate of their Democratic counterparts, with 26 Republican members of Congress on Twitter and 15 Democrats (three of them being dormant accounts for Obama, Clinton, and Biden).