YouTube debates – where questions matter more than answers

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What should we take from the YouTube / CNN presidential debate?

Rather than accepting the over-hyped rhetoric of the debate’s organisers (‘revolutionary’ etc.) or listening to the dismissals by new media gurus (e.g. Jeff Jarvis) it’s worth considering what we can learn about new methods of political engagement from the ‘people’s presidential debate’ hosted on Monday evening.

Its format was similar to the BBC’s Question Time, except that rather than questions being posed by a studio audience they were asked by people who’d uploaded video questions to YouTube. CNN & YouTube picked 39 questions from almost 3,000. These were supposed to represent a diverse spread of political concerns, personal issues, and the distinctly bizarre (e.g. Jered Thompson on gun control).

But focusing purely on the subject matter or the way the questions were phrased slightly misses the point. The key difference was the context. Being able to see people – up close and personal – gave the questions an authenticity and an immediacy you don’t get from normal debates.

Three people (aid workers?) stood behind Sudanese children asking what the candidates intended to do about Darfur refugees. Asked in a studio the question would have seemed worthy, distant, even cliched. On screen on the ground it felt genuine and pressing. Or Kim, 36 years old, who pulled off her wig and explained how she hopes ‘to be a future breast cancer survivor’ but reckons her chances are pretty slim since she has no health insurance.

As Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times, ‘It was not the phrasing of the questions that made a difference, it was the visual impact of the people asking them’.

And though this visual impact did not particularly affect the politicians’ answers – much of them standard pre-rehearsed statements – it almost certainly did, I’d argue, influence the reaction of the audience.

There were alot of shortcomings to this debate – some of which are described by Kevin Marsh on the BBC Editors’ Blog and others by Jeff Jarvis (to be published in Monday’s Guardian) – but if we accept that we’re still just beginners when it comes to working out how new media fuses with old, then there’s alot we could learn from experiments like this.

Written by Martin Moore

July 25th, 2007 at 4:34 pm

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