Saturday, October 6, 2007

Digital Natives

Facing the YouTube generation

From The Statesman
August 1, 2007

By ND Batra

Hardly has the conspiratorial expression “Let’s Google him” settled in as a sizzling hot potato on the American tongue-in-cheek civic discourse when there is another linguistic gatecrasher “YouTubing” into American culture and consciousness, as last week’s Democratic debate showed. The YouTube questioning began with a street expletive, “Wassup?”

It was a remarkable event technologically speaking since this is certainly the beginning of a new era when television and the Internet have begun to converge into a seamless medium used by the Internet hoi polloi and potential voters who asked all kinds of questions ranging from gun control and global warming to healthcare, sex education for children, gay marriages, Darfur (Sudan), and Iraq war.

Experts could not have asked better questions of the candidates, and as author James Surowiecki might have said, it was a sample of the wisdom of the crowd made visible by YouTube. Therefore, to say that it was nothing more than another digital town hall meeting is to miss the point: the challenge of the emerging new media to traditional media gatekeepers and professional pundits. It was a surge from the earth gone flat; and there will be more to come.

The questioners it seemed had already “Googled” the Democratic presidential candidates’ past track records on various issues and using their home videos equipment they personalised controversial issues and uploaded them to YouTube for the debate, which was in actuality candidates’ reactions to questions rather than they debating among themselves.

But there were faces, ethnically heterogeneous, the Democrats could not ignore. Nor will the Republicans when they confront the YouTube generation on 17 September at St. Petersburg, Florida, though one of them, Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts, said in an interview: “I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman.” But Republicans cannot escape the tech savvy YouTube generation or they will be left behind. Out of 3,000 questions ranging from the serious to the absurd, CNN, the all news cable network, selected 39 for hosting to Democratic presidential hopefuls, who had gathered on the campus of the military college, Citadel, South Carolina, deep in the Bible belt.

An animated video clip of Snowman with his snowball kid created a stir when it asked a question about global warming, which even former Vice-President Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth could not have done better. Then there was a gun-toting wise guy who held an automatic guerrilla-style gun and calling it “my baby” asked whether it would be taken away if a Democrat were to occupy the White House. “He needs help. I don’t know if he’s mentally qualified to own that gun,” said Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, one of the eight candidates on the stage. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the issue of gun control receded into the lower depths of American consciousness, though gun violence has not abated. But Senator Biden missed the irony: The assault weapon guy was mocking the Second Amendment, the American people’s right to bear arms like “my baby.” Regarding questions about Iraq war and withdrawal of US troops, Democrats as expected were united in condemning President George W Bush in misleading the country and mismanaging the post-war operations.

Moreover, they were equally united about how soon to withdraw, soon enough but in a phased and gradual manner in order to protect the troops and not leave a hellhole behind, which Iraq has already become. Some set tentative dates while others were judiciously ambiguous, which showed once again how deeply confused and divided Americans are about Iraq. In response to a question whether he or she would meet with the leaders of Syria, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea in his or her first year as President in order to promote diplomacy, Democratic candidates took this as another opportunity to hit at the Bush administration’s reluctance to use diplomatic tools for advancing national interest.

Senator Barack Obama, a leading candidate among Democrats and the biggest challenge to Senator Hillary Clinton’s ambition to go to the White House, sharply rebuked the Bush administration saying that it’s nothing short of ridiculous to believe that not talking to countries is a kind of punishment to them. He said he would readily talk to them as John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan continuously did with the Soviet Union.

Senator Clinton’s thoughtful and measured response to the question made her look and sound presidential. She said that she would not rush to meet with them in her first year without knowing what their intentions were and certainly she would not like to give them a chance to use the meeting for propaganda purposes. The President of the United States cannot behave like a used car salesman ready to talk to anyone. The reason why some Republican candidates are reluctant to face the YouTube debate format is that they are not sure what kinds of questions might get into the YouTube pool and what questions CNN might select. To minimise the CNN effect, questions could be randomly selected. Politicians are control freaks and do not want to lose control over their professionally designed, customised and controlled messages, which they can drumbeat through television commercials and for which they have to raise millions of dollars. In this sense, the Internet is a very different medium because it empowers people. In the future instead of holding a Press conference, politicians might be asked to hold a YouTube conference.

(Dr ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University and is the author of Digital Freedom)

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