Guardian column: The YouTube debate

Puppets aside, YouTube is the best forum for debate

Jeff Jarvis
Monday July 30, 2007
The Guardian

I had such high hopes for the first YouTube presidential debate in America, held on CNN last week. We, the people, were to ask the questions by submitting videos to YouTube, some of which would be shown to the candidates and to the nation. Almost 3,000 questions came into YouTube covering an incredible range of issues, often expressed in highly personal terms.

Before the debate, I blogged that I thought this could fundamentally shift the dynamics of politics in America, giving the people a voice, letting us be heard by the powerful and the wider public. Campaigns have always been about control, about handing down a message, with just the appearance of listening. But here, at least, the voters and the politicians would speak directly, albeit virtually, in full public view.

I thought this might have the fringe benefit of teaching reporters and TV anchors, who are supposed to ask questions in our stead, how they really should do it.

And I hoped that the debate could demonstrate that our democracy is in good hands, that we care and are informed. Too often, that’s not the PR we, the people, get. We’re portrayed as big, dumb masses who don’t know and don’t give a damn. But that’s not the people you see in the vast majority of the questions submitted to YouTube. Reporters I know who watched hundreds and even thousands of them came away impressed with the public.

Sadly, this is not what we saw on the debate itself. CNN selected the questions unilaterally, not allowing us to vote for the best, or even to rate and discuss them. I’m not suggesting that we should have selected them all; there is a need for organisation, and popularity is not the best guide. But if the public had had a voice in the process, we surely would not have ended up with half the videos CNN chose, the ones that were insipid, sophomoric, pointless and silly: someone held up a coin and asked the candidates to define the words there – “In God we trust.” A snowman sock puppet asked about global warming. A gun nut cradled his huge weapon and called it his “baby” (candidate Joe Biden said the man needs medical attention). This is how media see us: benign fools, dangerous freaks.

But there were also moments of profound clarity. A lesbian couple asked the candidates simply, “Would you allow us to be married . . . to each other?” A pastor followed, asking how, after religion was used to justify slavery and segregation, it still could be used to “deny gay Americans their full and equal rights.” Parents of soldiers in Iraq – one headed back, the other dead – confronted the candidates on the war. A woman suffering from cancer and poor American health care and insurance took off her wig to make her point most personally. These questioners made abstract issues human. They reminded us that elections are not about jockeying horse races; they are about our nation and our lives.

But TV got in the way. The candidates responded to most of this with their well-spun cant: empty words about change and experience. And if anyone mentions a soldier in the family, the candidate is obligated to deliver the thanks of the nation. This is how politicians behave before the big cameras. But the folks on the YouTube videos were speaking to small cameras; they were more direct, intimate, authentic.

The two media did not mix well. CNN displayed the YouTube videos in small squares on a big screen shot by a big camera – reduced, finally, to postage stamps on our screens. It seemed the network was ashamed to show the videos full-screen because they would not look like real TV. But, of course, that’s just the point. They weren’t real TV. They were bits of conversation.

TV doesn’t know how to have a conversation. TV knows how to perform. The event’s moderator, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, behaved almost apologetically about the intrusion of these real people, who speak without benefit of make-up. He interrupted the candidates constantly, allowing them shallow soundbites a fraction the length and depth of even a YouTube video.

So I wish we’d have the YouTube debate on YouTube and leave TV behind. A few of the candidates are beginning to answer voters’ questions and challenges directly, small-camera-to-small-camera. Thus they are opening up a dialogue between candidate and constituent that was not possible before the internet: a conversation in our new public square. That is how elections should be held, amid the citizens.