Home User Generated Politics: CNN-YouTube Debates Tonight

User Generated Politics: CNN-YouTube Debates Tonight

If you believe the hype, today marks the start of a new era in American politics, where citizen journalism gets its moment in the limelight. Or it marks a low point in American politics where serious discourse is put in the hands of the same people who watched a video of a baby giggling 19 million times. That’s right: tonight is the night of the CNN-YouTube Debates.

I wrote in June about how Google was changing the American political landscape, and that will not be more evident than tonight when eight Democratic presidential hopefuls take the stage in South Carolina — a crucial early primary state — for a debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube in which all of the questions were submitted by users of YouTube. The Republicans get their chance in September.

According to CNN’s Candy Crowley over 2300 video questions were submitted for the debate, which will be sifted through by a team of editors and cut down to about 75 to 100 for tonight’s debate. CNN and YouTube like to bandy about terms like ‘historical’ and ‘milestone’ when talking about these debates, but some aren’t so convinced. A number of bloggers and pundits think that the debate is more hype than substance, pointing to the sheering silliness of YouTube, and the fact that CNN will have a final say over which of the videos make it to air — prompting some to question whether the people really have much to do with the questions being asked in the end or if it will ultimately end up as more of the same.

“On the surface, this format seems like a revolution in citizen participation in presidential politics, and it could inject some life into the drab debate format that — let’s be honest — excites neither the candidates nor the audience.

But cool technology on big screens is only half (or less) of the technological revolution — it’s really all about the people. To be sure, it’s great that YouTube and CNN are involving the YouTube community in this effort. But there’s a glaring omission: CNN will be the sole arbiters of what videos are shown and questions are asked. This format is contrary to what YouTube’s community of users — and other online communities like it at Digg, Facebook, MySpace, and elsewhere — are used to.” — TechPresident.

On the other hand, the YouTube questioners add a human element, that could inject some poignant moments into the debate. “Before asking the candidates how they’d cut preventive health care costs, Kim, 36, removes her wig and says, ‘I hope to be a… breast-cancer survivor,'” notes today’s issue of Newsweek about a potential questioner who is a cancer patient. That sort of moment is possible in the intimate town hall-style meetings that candidates often attend on their own, but rarely could something like that happen in a nationally televised debate.

For myself, I tend to agree with Harrison Hoffman at Webware who points out that “the fact that this debate is even happening just goes to show the enormous impact that user generated-content has had on society.” Though certainly a bit gimmicky, and unfortunately not fully embracing web 2.0 by letting the community self moderate the content, this debate is an important step for user generated content, if perhaps not for politics. As an American, however, I am a bit concerned by the number of video questions asked by puppets (I counted 4 in a quick perusal of around 50 videos).

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