YouTube and you
The explosive success of a Web site called YouTube marks the latest milestone in the epic transition from television to video. YouTube is an online video repository. After scarcely a year in existence, it attracts nearly one out of every 25 site visits on the Web. The average visit lasts 28 minutes. Friends and family of YouTube’s creators are probably leafing through the luxury real estate sections of their newspapers, waiting for the IPO.
While YouTube’s financial future is a question mark, the reason behind the company’s current exclamation point of an impact is no mystery. YouTube has come up with a better way for people to view videos. It has also built a fast, free and easy way to post and self-index videos so others can view them. “Broadcast Yourself” reads YouTube’s slogan. Evidently, a lot of people want to do just that. YouTube receives 60,000 new videos each day.
What does this social trend mean for campaigns and elections? Julie Supan, senior marketing director at YouTube, told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post that YouTube levels the playing field, “… allowing well-backed and less-known candidates to reach the same audience and share the same stage.”
The Internet has been deemed a democratizing force for years. Yet videos add punch and legitimacy to words. When voters read a campaign declaration, even in a trusted media outlet, they can’t tell how much importance the candidate places in the words. When they see and hear a candidate declare something, however, they can better calibrate the seriousness of the commitment behind the statement. And when a journalist, voter or teenager in another country wants to comment on the seriousness of a candidate statement, she or he can now do so via video. This is why professional communicators should henceforth “YouTube” the names of their clients, as well as check Google and Wikipedia.
Allowing equal access to the playing field is one thing; winning (or even scoring) on that field is quite another. To harness the power of video, campaigns still have to get the right people to enter the right search terms and view the right videos at the right times. Some are already trying. Entering “campaigns” and “elections” into YouTube’s search box in late July yielded 186 returns. The top return sorted by relevance had been selected for viewing 343 times; “Razzmania,” an animated video promoting the long-shot candidacy of Dennis Rasmussen for a Maryland Senate seat this year, had attracted 13,880 clicks. Certainly some of those clicks led to viewings, and some of those viewings led to greater support for the Rasmussen campaign. But the logic of “the long tail,” a currently popular theory in the high-tech industry that companies can make money by selling a few copies each of a great many products, does not apply to winner-take-all elections.
On the other hand, there’s more to political influence than the numbers game. For an instructive parallel to the rise of online videos, consider blogs, yesterday’s Internet sensation and a factor of increasing importance in today’s campaignland. Indeed, many YouTube videos come from “vloggers” who post videos in the public diary format popularized by blogging.
Dan Manatt of PoliticsTV.com aggregates videos for progressives in real time, a specialty niche that draws on the same trend YouTube has benefited from on a universal level. A recent compilation featured videos of a speech by U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., on Iraq, a clip from an appearance by his primary opponent, Ned Lamont, on “The Colbert Report,” a commentary on their race by Democratic consultant Joe Trippi and, culled from the homemade video crowd, a puppet show take on the contest.
Political blogs seem most potent in framing issues, characterizing candidates and thereby defining a race. The more bloggers involved, the stronger the effect. A similar impact could develop as vloggers and other video-makers band together. YouTube provides tools for coordination and association.
Michael Cornfield is vice president of Public Affairs for ElectionMall Technologies, and teaches strategy and message at GWU’s Graduate School of Political Management. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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