Thursday, July 26, 2007

YouTube debates: the first user-powered fight?

...ok, not such a good pun / analogy- CNN and Google might just be a tad better funded than the Wright Brothers were for the first powered flight. But by the end of the century we might well look back on the recent debate and see the parallels- how a small hop actually turned out to transform the way politics, the media and the public interact forever.

I’m going to attempt, as objectively as possible, to analyse the YouTube/CNN Democratic Primary debate and to draw some conclusions as to how the processes and format for future political debates could be improved.

There has been plenty written or broadcast by both sides in the last few days (see techPresidents excellent video and Josh Levy's post mortem on the same site). Following the debate, battle-lines between old and new media have been well and truly drawn, with one example being the exchange between Jeff Jarvis, Guardian columnist and new media guru writing on PrezVid and Kevin Marsh of the College of Journalism, writing on the BBC editor’s blog.

The briefest of glances at my own site will show that I tend towards Jeff’s side when it comes to the principles of citizen participation in journalism and news (although I wouldn’t describe myself as an ‘uber-zealot’ and I suspect, neither would Jeff so describe himself). However, in practical terms, I think the YouTube experiment throws up a lot of difficult questions and my first reaction is to agree with Kevin’s closing comment, ‘maybe there is a way of fusing ‘big’ and ‘citizen’, ‘old’ and ‘new’ but this wasn’t it’. Or not quite…

First of all, the pros- and these have been cited so widely that you’ll forgive me for not quoting individuals.

1. Range- the debate threw up a wide range of questions from a reasonably wide demographic, although as I’ll say more about later, there was a heavy tendency towards certain groups. Certainly, it’s likely that CNN journalists would not have come up with such a range of themes.

2. Freshness and interest- there can be no argument that most questions had a freshness about them that is missing from many traditional journalist-led debates.

3. Challenge and authenticity-the fact that many of the questions came from people who were clearly suffering as a result of policy decisions (cancer patients, bereaved relatives) made them all the more challenging for the candidates, who found it difficult to strip away the real life emotion behind the issues. That said, there are some problems connected with such emotion...

4. Free and open participation in the democratic process-or at least an improvement in that direction.

5. The promise of change- Marsh writes that one of the strengths of the traditional journalist-led debate is to ‘field ego and against ego, personality against personality... not the most attractive aspect of big media but its most necessary given the politics we have’. Surely Kevin, the point of the new media revolution is to try to change the nature of political discourse?

Now the cons, which as usual, are often the flip side of the pros:

1. First up among bloggers was YouTube’s continued reliance on old media staples, such as the mediator/anchor and an editorial team to choose the questions. Jarvis reports his friend Michael Rosenblum wants CNN's anchor, Anderson Cooper to ‘get out of the way’ and David Borham and his editors making the picks to ‘go home’.

Mary Anne Ostrom, writes in the San Jose Mercury News that ‘the debate is being heralded for turning a new page in presidential politics, beginning to transform staid debates into an endeavour taken in the spirit of YouTube- technology driven, a little offbeat and with voters at the controls’. But this signals two problems, which she touches on later in her piece:

2. The technology driven format actually excludes those on the wrong side of the digital and technological divide: not everyone has a camera, broadband or cable.

3. On YouTube, the more offbeat a video, the more hits it tends to get-so if we were to follow many bloggers’ suggestions (and my own preference) that future questions are chosen by YouTube users, the more offbeat presentations may rise to the top. This is hardly representative.

The idea of true crowd-sourcing of questions, with users voting on which questions should get asked, leads me to a practical reservation which I have mentioned in other posts.

4. How could users browse 3000 plus videos and vote on them? It would take hours to get through all of them (25, to be exact). Considering this was the first exercise of its kind, we are likely to see 10,000 plus entries in the next debate. Is video really the most efficient and practical way to pose the questions and have people vote on them in the first instance? And would the votes then be representative? Only the most avid internet users or those with a disproportionate amount of leisure time would have time to properly sift even a fraction of the 30 second questions. David Colarusso responded admirably quickly by allowing users of his site
www.communitycounts.us to vote on the videos, but I found browsing the questions very time consuming.

5. Another problem with video is that as a visual medium, inevitably people will focus on presentation: in both their conception, execution and the subsequent voting there is a real risk that style, creativity and polish may triumph over content.

6. To be measured against the advantages of freshness, authenticity and challenge, is the risk that the emotion and sympathy that naturally arises when we view questions asked by cancer patients and bereaved relatives may skew the voting. In any future YouTube debate where users decide by voting, we might see a disproportionate number of questions that tug at the heart strings, rather than achieve balance.

So what is the way forward?

If YouTube are brave enough to go down the genuine crowd-sourcing route and allow users to vote, which I think they should, then they will surely need to make some adjustments to the site and perhaps retain filters within the whole process and even introduce some more.

I would recommend:

-partnering with terrestrial TV and one of the traditional national newspapers, like USA Today

-categorising questions for easier browsing
-allowing text based questions as a filter, with readers and viewers voting for a shortlist on an Internet site such as Yoosk.
-where the short-listed questioners don’t have the resources, ask YouTubers to help them produce a video
-have a second round of voting on the shortlist on YouTube- and by phone or text (perhaps showing them on TV)
-make sure that all winners have enough time to get to the debate and are able to respond to answers when they are there (even if it is afterwards)
-genuinely popularise the event by having a competition on YouTube for the host and moderator (inspired video-bloggers like zefrank immediately spring to mind but I'llreadily admit, may be utterly unsuitable)
-make sure there is systematic feedback with audiences being able to rate candidates performance as well as their overall favourability- again using a feature such as we have on Yoosk.

All a lot of trouble, but this could go someway towards genuinely providing for real participation and at least partially offset some of the other problems I have identified above.

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