Thursday, March 27, 2008

The New Adults

Jon Stewart got it right last week. The most salient feature of Barack Obama's speech was his decision to address the American public as if they were adults. However, beneath the surface of this glib gag (however accurate it may be) is the more interesting question of just whom is being addressed and how. This was the basic topic of "Welcome to the age of the sound blast," yesterday's Politico blog post by Micah L. Sifry and Andrew Rasiej. Here is their thesis sentence:

If 1960 was the year that TV displaced radio as the main platform for political persuasion, then the 2008 primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton may go down in history as the moment when the Internet ended the dominance of television.

However, we have to wade through a fair amount of expository text before we get to the interesting data points, which then build up to the punch line of the post:

So far, Obama's videos have been viewed more than 33 million times on — and that's not counting partial views, since YouTube only reports a full viewing as a “view.” His campaign has uploaded more than 800 video clips, and adds several more a day.

If you just look at his ten most viewed videos, here are some astonishing facts:

  • The average number of views for these top ten is currently more than 1.1 million (nearly double the average from a month ago!)
  • The average length of these ten videos is 13.3 minutes.
  • There have been nearly 3.9 million views of the longest of Obama's most popular videos, his “A More Perfect Union” speech on race in America.

By contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s YouTube numbers are nowhere as impressive as Obama's — a sign of her failure to understand and embrace the new medium than anything else. She’s garnered about 10.5 million views, but the average length of her top ten most viewed clips is only two minutes. Several of her top ten videos are actually 30-second TV ads, in fact.

Viewed in this context, it becomes clearer how important Obama's speech on race has been to his continued lead in the Democratic race.

In a pre-Internet era, the manifold replayings on television of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sound bites denouncing America would probably have deeply damaged Obama's candidacy. But millions of voters have been flocking to the web to watch his 37-minute response to the controversy, and observers across the spectrum — from Peggy Noonan to Andrew Sullivan to Jon Stewart — have praised Obama for speaking from the heart and appealing to people's intelligence.

The sound-biting of politics isn’t dead. Not yet. But welcome to the age of the sound blast. The weather is changing.

In other words the answer to the "how" question seems to involve the use of the Internet to get at "source material" that has not been "pre" or "post" processed by the editing and commentary of the traditional mass media, even when that source material requires an attention span of more than half an hour. However, as Craig Newmark pointed out in his own Huffington Post blog post early this morning, this is only part of the story. In terms of my own reasoning, the "whom" question still remains; and, in addressing it, we learn more about the "how."

This part of the story emerges in Brian Stelter piece for The New York Times this morning, "Finding Political News Online." Stelter's thesis is that those most inclined to use the Internet for their "source material," the answer to the "whom" question, are the younger generation. However, his thesis also elaborates further on the "how" question:

It is not news that young politically minded viewers are turning to alternative sources like YouTube, Facebook and late-night comedy shows like “The Daily Show.” But that is only the beginning of how they process information.

According to interviews and recent surveys, younger voters tend to be not just consumers of news and current events but conduits as well — sending out e-mailed links and videos to friends and their social networks. And in turn, they rely on friends and online connections for news to come to them. In essence, they are replacing the professional filter — reading The Washington Post, clicking on — with a social one.

What we may be witnessing is the next phase in an ideological battle that originated between Tip O'Neill and Newt Gingrich. O'Neill is remembered by many for both preaching and practicing the premise that "All Politics Is Local." Gingrich defied this premise by delivering a speech to an empty floor on the House of Representatives, knowing full well that it would be picked up and broadcast by C-SPAN. O'Neill retaliated by using his Speaker's position as a bully pulpit from which he castigated Gingrich, but the fight was just beginning. Gingrich ultimately made his point by releasing his "Contract with [on?] America" document, which basically turned local contests for seats in the House in 1994 into a national movement. Many saw the resulting Republican majority in the House as the death-knell for O'Neill's "politics is local" philosophy.

Ironically, Gingrich has also been a champion of information technology, which is now an area of concentration for him at the American Enterprise Institute. The reason this is ironic is that the Internet may be returning the conduct of politics to a more local level, but with a curious kink in the semantics of "locality." Stelter cites Jane Buckingham, the founder of the Intelligence Group, a market research company, as observing that the social filtering process through which news is distributed by the "YouTube generation" is nothing more than word-of-mouth practices escalated to the scale of personal social networks on the Internet. Put another way, word-of-mouth is no longer about conversations over the water cooler at work or at the corner bar after work; it is about the MySpace "friends" with whom the younger generation communicates and the Facebook networks of a slightly older set.

Here are some of the data points that Stelter invokes:

A December survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press looked broadly at how media were being consumed this campaign. In the most striking finding, half of respondents over the age of 50 and 39 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds reported watching local television news regularly for campaign news, while only 25 percent of people under 30 said they did.

Fully two-thirds of Web users under 30 say they use social networking sites, while fewer than 20 percent of older users do. MySpace and Facebook create a sense of connection to the candidates. Between the two sites, Mr. Obama has about one million “friends,” Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, has roughly 330,000, and Senator John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, has more than 140,000. Four out of 10 young people have watched candidate speeches, interviews, commercials or debates online, according to Pew, substantially more than people 30 and older.

In other words those who seem to have responded most to being treated like adults are under 30, which is probably the demographic sector most aware of how conventional media can manipulate their audiences, most skeptical of those media sources, and best equipped to use the Internet to seek out more reliable sources.

Politics has become local again, but the locality of those under 30 is not the locality of a Congressional district. Rather, it is the locality of the personal social network one has formed through the Internet. Obama has recognized this premise and applied it to his advantage, while Clinton is still strategizing under O'Neill's old rules. This does not necessarily make Obama the better candidate; but it illustrates that he has a better grasp of how we communicate (particularly when communication is a prerequisite of an important action, such as voting) than Clinton does. If that grasp can scale from the national to the global level, then it may be the "secret sauce" required for restoring the reputation of the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world (and depriving those seeds of anger, which can grow into terrorism, of the nutrition they require). This could well make him the best choice for the next President of the United States; but that scale-up question remains a big "if."

The divisiveness of the Democratic primary campaigns has, for better or worse, given us an opportunity to observe both Clinton and Obama under pressure. If the future of our country depends upon effective communicative actions, then perhaps one of our best assessment indicators will be how each of these candidates communicates under pressure. My own opinion is that Obama has been doing a much better job in both "presentation of self" and keeping "on message" over the points that matter most, while Clinton has applied her own communicative actions to winning primaries "by any means necessary" (which is, itself, another fundamental principle of old-school politics). If nothing else this is an indicator that Obama's commitment to change is more than rhetorical; and, if he really has that commitment, then the way it has sustained him through a major national challenge could well sustain him should he subsequently be confronted with global challenges. This may be what is registering most strongly with those no longer content to rely on old-school media sources for old-school news about old-school politics.

1 comment:

America Jones said...

One theme I noticed in the sources you cited in your recent post

was a reliance by the authors on the metrics provided by social media as an indicator of different candidates' popularity: how many YouTube views, how many MySpace friends, and the like.

As a member of this younger generation suspicious of how the media manipulates the public, I couldn't help but notice the unusual use of capitalization when visiting (former Wisconsin governor / former Health and Human Services Secretary / former Republican presidential hopeful) Tommy Thompson's MySpace page:

Compare the "About Me" profile text to the text of "user" comments. In this age of lowercase emails and Internet shorthand, I'm suspicious of the quite uniform use of Title Caps. It really looks like whoever filled out Tommy Thompson's MySpace profile also invented lots of pretend friends to make the candidate seem more popular.

The other day I heard a story on NPR about Obama re-creating a speech he gave in Chicago, and releasing video of the re-enactment on the Internet complete with canned audience reactions edited in:

Maybe all those campaign contributions buy an office full of people in India reloading YouTube videos all day to drive up the numbers.