The YouTube-ing Of Politics

Last night, CNN and YouTube held their highly-anticipated debate. A few things came through loud and clear. First, despite whatever sea change (or not) this debate represented in our politics, the change was certainly one-sided — the candidates, for all the spontaneity of the questions posed, answered in essentially standard, rote responses. One the whole, there was little originality or emotion from the Democrats, certainly none that equalled the pointed, and often poignant, questions from the YouTubers.

And it was the questions — the user-generated content which fueled this political debate — that really marked a sweeping change. They were a fresh wind blowing through an all-too-often stodgy, boring process, a process that by and large stirs little interest beyond the “political junkie” class. (A class that has, of course, grown tremendously as political blogging has grown, but, overall, it’s a small subsection of the nation.) At its best, a YouTube-style debate can bring into the political discourse the voices of many previously disaffected citizens, especially within the ranks of young people.

But this debate also sets a marker — it very well may be the point where citizen journalism has finally arrived. The questions, of course, were not “journalism,” but this was the point where the voice of the citizen “officially” substituted itself for the voice of the journalist. The YouTube debate was a dialog between the citizenry and the politicians. It’s true that CNN moderated the debate, not only with the presence of Anderson Cooper, but, more importantly, by selecting the questions, instead of allowing the wisdom of the YouTube crowds to bring the “most popular” or “most viewed” or “most favorites” to the top. Still, having such personal and emotional questions asked by The People is a very powerful thing, and it is likely that this approach will be a permanent part of the political debate process going forward. It seems hard to imagine going back to a round table of journalists asking their “Serious” questions.

MIT Professor Henry Jenkins recently posted an interview with author and NYU Professor Stephen Ducombe, where they discussed not only the YouTube debate, but the significance of the emerging participatory culture and its impact on politics:

This demonstrates the awesome power – and talent – of the “audience.” This is, um, “poaching” at its best: political “fans” tapping into popular desire and, using pop culture language, delivering, a different message. At its worst this pop culture poaching leads to the Hillary Clinton Soprano’s ad: using all the style of popular culture but ignoring the deep seated reasons that such a series was popular. Clinton’s approach is just using pop culture a gimmick.

One of the things that interests me most about the explosion of media production is the multiplicity of messages and meanings that political campaigns have to contend with…We’ve already seen how fans of Barack Obama have used pop culture tropes to make him into a sex symbol and render Hillary Clinton as Big Sister. Political campaigns are just going to have to make peace with the fact that they can not control their message, and that the message is going to be determined, in part, by their fans. This means that “unacceptable” material is going to be part of the political discussion and decision making.

We can either bemoan this fact: the debasement of the political process and so on, or we can look for what might be more positive aspects. It could be argued that one of the things that’s wrong with electoral politics today is that what is considered “expectable” is determined by professional pundits, big media and those who make large campaign contributions. Consequently, what is of interest to the majority of us is left out of the discussion. Certainly, Obama Girl isn’t opening up a substantive political discussion of anything, but it’s very existence, and its popularity, suggests that we, the people, want something else, something more, than the sanitized, pre-packaged, content-free politician packages we’ve gotten in the past.

It’s difficult to deny that the YouTube Generation is having an impact on our culture, and on our politics. Last night’s CNN debate may just be the start.

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