8 democratic candidates face a new kind of questioning with queries straight from america’s living rooms


This has been a defining moment in political and New Media history, and I’m glad I could experience it in an academic environment. CNN and YouTube held a two hour debate on television for the Democratic presidential primary candidates. For the first time, webcam wielding citizens have been able to publicly question politicians on television.

What this at first means, of course, is that American citizens have gained a new political power through the Internet. Given weeks of preparation, citizens had time to organize and refine their questions, and practice and edit their questions. Not only is this is especially important for the less communicatively savvy citizens who have less of a voice in politics, it gives citizens an edge in the debates by thinking through exactly what they want to say while the candidates must respond spontaneously. True, all the videos were publicly available and could have been studied and prepared for, but the number of questions was massive and most addressed the big, expectable issues.

But it’s not perfect yet, because the news media decided which of the videos made the cut. Of the thousands of user submitted YouTube videos, 37 were selected by CNN for the debate. So the news media was still capable of tweaking the event as they see fitting to their agenda. Indeed, the candidates were given unfair amounts of speaking time. When Obama is allowed to speak four times longer than Gravel, there is obvious favoritism at play that is not necessarily of the people. Though I am not a fan of Gravel or some of the other less popularized candidates, they still deserve equal opportunity in the debate.

Were this a truly democratic event, the YouTube users would have been able to select which of the videos would be presented to the candidates. There would be bias, but it would be of the people. And the bias could have been controlled by including a tag comparison algorithm to ensure that various issues were covered and all the candidates were equally addressed. Just let the people choose. This was supposed to be a chance for citizens, not the news media, to publicize their voices in politics.

In any case, we are stepping in a new and good direction. What’s highly significant of the YouTube debate concept is that people from around the world, let alone from across America, could participate in the event. In essence, it is an international town hall meeting with internationalized personal messages. Sick and disabled people can stay home and still have a say. People with complicated questions can draft them multiple times. In an hour one can virtually travel to the fifty states, talk with people and return home. The spectrum of our nation comes together at a common point, aggregated into a single discussion. That is democracy at its best.

Internet culture brings another new facet into the political picture, because these videos and responses are crystallized and available to the public. This means that an Internet user can see see all the questions, selected or not, and answers at any time they want. They can also mash up and remix the videos in a creative way to form their own message, whether serious or satiric or just plain hilarious. This is the voice of the people murmuring behind the scenes of the television screen.

The YouTube debate also marks a generational shift of power. Much of the Internet is dominated by the youth, which have had a history of apathy towards politics. With politics entering the blogospheres, the youth may actually become interested in their country an even vote. I have personally seen a lot of political activity on Facebook and Newsvine, including simulated elections with hundreds of thousands of simulated votes. Candidates have set up profiles and have the support of tens of thousands of Internet users, many of whom are between the ages of 18-24 or even younger.

I’ll end with one final point. When you factor in all the socioeconomic levels and so forth, television is still the most commonly used means of information gathering among citizens. With the YouTube debate, we see the Internet fusing with television. Really what that means is the most expressive and democratized medium is speaking through the most public medium. Just think of the potential of that combination!