Obama announces; Pawlenty fires back

Since it was no secret that President Obama would run for re-election, Republican opponents had no reason to be slow in their response.  Tim Pawlenty took the first crack today with his newest video, “A New Direction“:

Pawlenty’s immediate, polished, and pithy video response shows keen preparation and intelligence.  The fact that he was the only Republican challenger in a position to make a video like this is one more reason one more reason he was smart to form his exploratory committee when he did.

Check out the contrast in style between Pawlenty’s video and the Obama announcement:

Pawlenty’s response mimics his previous trailers/videos, with thunderous background music and a serious tone.  Recognized voices of the left (like Paul Krugman) are skillfully used to point to the flaws in Obama’s policies, and the candidate (or candidate-to-be, officially) is the star.  Since the knock on T-Paw has been that he’s too bland and “Minnesota Nice” to rile up and motivate voters, the stirring rallying cry is his way of making the election seem like the fulcrum on which the lever of history will turn (or something like that) and positioning himself as the Man Our Times Cry Out For.

Meanwhile, Obama’s laid back video focuses on volunteers.  The criticism that Obama is self-centered and self-aggrandized is counterbalanced with the low-key collection of individuals talking about what they can do to re-elect the President.  If fact, Obama doesn’t even appear in the video, though he did “send” the email to supporters that announced the video.  Significantly, the first three supporters hail from North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada – three traditionally red states that Obama carried in 2008.

The different styles reflect two different audiences.  Obama and his campaign handlers know that his announcement video is going to make the evening news, whether it’s a thoughtful call to supporting the policies of the last two years or the President delivering an autotuned address about the wonders of Friday.  (Actually, that second option would probably get an awful lot more press, but in a not-as-good kind of way.)  So his video is directed at the people who put him in office: the ones who made phone calls, knocked on doors and urged friends and neighbors to schlep out to polling places.  The video attempts to frame his re-election as every bit the grassroots movement as his 2008 election, despite the vast advantages of incumbency.

(Also worth noting is how one Obama supporter, Ed from North Carolina, echoes an old George W. Bush talking point from 2004: “I don’t agree with Obama on everything.  But I respect him and I trust him.”)

Pawlenty’s team also knew that the President’s announcement would be  guaranteed coverage.  So his video is built to take advantage of that press exposure – and earn coverage of his own to help lift his name recognition numbers.

And now, the real news about the fake news

The Onion debuts two cable television programs this month.  The fake newspaper turned fake internet news site presents a unique and specific genre of comedy – the obviously false presented as seriously real.  It’s similar but a bit different from slapstick comedies like Airplane! or Spaceballs.  It’s closer to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update as delivered by the more deadpan performers, like  Kevin Nealon in the early 1990s.  The 1970s spoof talk show Fernwood 2 Night and the long-forgotten short-lived Nick at Night television review series On the Television may be the best examples, even if short-lived.  Because the audience is in on the joke but the performers are apparently not, it depends as much on performance as it does on clever writing.

Since this type of humor is so specific, it’s unsurprising that the Onion’s television ancestors met with limited success.  What has given the Onion its staying power?

The Onion – which started as a small, regionally distributed newspaper in 1988 – became an early example of the internet’s power of viral distribution.  It may be difficult for a network television show to find the audience it needs to build a niche following; the Onion’s following grew over time as its stories were forwarded by email.  When the Onion’s television shows air this month, they will have already recruited their niche audience online over approximately 15 years.

There’s one final layer to peel back, and that’s the Onion’s business model based on generating large amounts of free, high quality content.  The term “viral growth” is overused, but is applicable to the Onion’s rise through virtual word-of-mouth.  The content brought traffic, and the traffic brought money – both in terms of advertising, book deals, and now television shows.  None of it would have worked without something that was worth sending in an email to a friend.  Funny always came first – and the money followed.  Other small, regionally distributed newspapers who are struggling may want to take note.

More of the year in YouTube

In a post on Pundit League yesterday, I followed up on last week’s best political videos of 2010 with another list.  You could call them the worst political videos of 2010, but that doesn’t really do justice to how bad they were.  These videos missed their marks so badly that you couldn’t help but send them to friends or post them to Facebook – entries included Dale Peterson’s angry, minute-long rant about why he should be Alabama’s next Ag Commissioner, a Florida state representative’s Kenny Loggins ripoff, and (of course) Demon Sheep.

After I finished the post, I noticed a running theme in the five worst political videos of 2010 that wasn’t present in the five best: each of the “bottom five” were official campaign videos (and, significantly, only one of those candidates won).  In contrast, only two of the “top five” were released by campaigns.  That isn’t surprising; judgement is often clouded in the stress of an election campaign, and some candidates simply stumble.  Those on the outside looking in sometimes have a clearer head and are able to drive points home more directly.

Another common thread was length.  The “bottom five” averaged 2:18 each, while the top five made their points in an average of 1:03 – less than half the time. That figure is not insignificant: 40% of online viewers abandon videos within a minute.


A brief history of online video and elections, 2004-2010

This week, YouTube announced their top videos of 2010.  In a post over at Pundit League, I followed up with my Top Five Political Videos of 2010.

My top five is far less scientific than YouTube’s, and for good reason: while YouTube’s list is a Casey Kasem-style countdown of the videos that had earned the most views, my list ranks videos based on significance.  In other words, I’m wasn’t trying to measure videos based on their impact on the campaign, but rather use the videos as a barometer of what went on in 2010.

In fact, online video offers a glimpse into the big story of every election cycle since 2004:

2004: This Land – Pre-YouTube, JibJab’sWoody Guthrie send-up featured President Bush and John Kerry neatly summarizing campaign themes.  Bush claimed Kerry looked like Frankenstein, Kerry said Bush was a right-wing nutjob.  That the close election turned as it did was evidence that Bush’s accusations rang truer with the electorate.

2006: Macaca – George Allen could very well have been the Republican candidate for President in 2008 if he hadn’t slipped up and unwittingly used a word that may or may not be an ethnic slur.  As it was, Allen became the symbol of a Republican establishment so cloistered and out of touch they could point to the one guy at a rally who was holding a video camera and say something offensive.

2008: Yes We Can – Between this independent video and Shepherd Fairey’s “Hope” illustration, the 2008 Obama was smart enough to seize on creative elements produced outside the campaign structure.  From early in the primary season, the Yes We Can video established the Obama candidacy as more than a simple election effort, but as a once-in a generation opportunity to change politics as usual.  More than any online network or social media outreach, the core theme of a new and different kind of politics growing up added excitement and motivation to Obama’s support.

2010: A Generational Choice / Rep. Bob Etheridge covers the Who – Marco Rubio captured the themes of tea party movement in his impassioned web commercial for his successful Senate bid.  And Bob Etheridge’s hilarious confrontation of an investigative student underscored the Democrats’ arrogance, comfort with power, and lack of connection with voters.

Notably, all videos on this list save Senator-elect Rubio’s “A Generational Choice” were produced outside of the “official” campaigns, coming from interested and passionate citizens; in fact, two captured politicians in  moments when they let their guard down.  Yet intentionally or not, each video captured an important element of the election cycle.  Elections aren’t (usually) won or lost based on a two-minute internet video; but video can act as a signpost and give some indication of how a campaign is going.

Jon Stewart vs. the Internet

One interesting sub-plot to come out of Saturday’s Rally for Sanity is a minor feud between online communities who carried the torch for the rally and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who are decidedly apathetic about the role online organizing had in making their rally a success.

Much of this may stem from some rally-goers/rally-supporters misunderstanding that, although event was politically-themed, it was essentially a free concert featuring comedy and music.  The message Stewart delivered in his self-important address at the end was more critical of the media than any other institution, and attempted to be inclusive of all political leanings in urging respect and courtesy.  Sure, it probably would have gone over better if it had come from someone who doesn’t make a living ridiculing other people, but that’s another topic.

The point is that despite Stewart’s 12-minute rant at the end, this was not an important event.  It was a fun event.  There was no call for participation, and many of the signs in the audience were more political satire than political commentary.

Despite the idea of some on the progressive side that this was a call to action and the flash point of a counter to the Tea Party, it really was the Million Meh March for people who just wanted to have a good time.  Online communities may have helped advertise for it, but Stewart and Colbert’s lack of gushing thanks is not worth getting worked up over.

New Diggs

Digg got a lot more relevant after announcing upgrades that make it a true social news service this week.

The old Digg was pretty straightforward: people submit stories, everyone votes, the top links appear on the home page and drive thousands of hits worth of traffic.  The problem is that the top stories for one user are the top stories for every user – and means that the site experience is a reflection of the aggregated community, rather than a user.

Breaking into a system like that means joining with like-minded users to promote content more favorable to your side.  Alternet called that “censorship” a few weeks back, but is really just a form of political organizing.  It was an attracting but ultimately useless expenditure of time; while Digg could drive traffic, it’s probably not going to be an important front in the war on ideas.

A more user-oriented model downplays the need for such a strategy (while promoting further social engagement) because the front page is no longer the Holy Grail.  It opens up the possibility of niche communities.  In politics and advocacy circles, it means you no longer need to have a high-profile race for Digg to be a viable part of your social strategy.

Al Franken’s comical take on net neutrality

If you thought Al Franken would give up the laughs just because he sued his way into the Senate, think again.  The SNL alum has some of his best writing since the Stuart Smalley movie up on CNN.com, which gave him a platform to discuss internet regulation:

“Net neutrality” sounds arcane, but it’s fundamental to free speech. The internet today is an open marketplace. If you have a product, you can sell it. If you have an opinion, you can blog about it. If you have an idea, you can share it with the world.

And no matter who you are — a corporation selling a new widget, a senator making a political argument or just a Minnesotan sharing a funny cat video — you have equal access to that marketplace.

An e-mail from your mom comes in just as fast as a bill notification from your bank. You’re reading this op-ed online; it’ll load just as fast as a blog post criticizing it. That’s what we mean by net neutrality.

So here’s the internet we have: a free and open landscape where the merit of ideas matters more than how much money you have.  So we want to oppose net neutrality legislation and regulations that would change that landscape, right?

Apparently, not in Al Franken’s world.  Franken likens the evolution of telecommunications companies to his work on network television, and the media consolidation that went on in that medium.

Back in the 1990s, Congress rescinded rules that prevented television networks from owning their own programming. Network executives swore in congressional hearings that they wouldn’t give their own programming preferred access to the airwaves. They vowed access to the airwaves would be determined only by the quality of the shows.

I was working at NBC back then, and I didn’t buy that line one bit. Sure enough, within a couple of years, NBC was the largest supplier of its own prime-time programming.

There are two rebuttals to this.  First, networks buy programming from other providers all the time.  In fact, one of the biggest hits NBC had this decade, Scrubs, was produced by Disney ABC.  The second point is… well, how is that all-Universal-produced prime time lineup working out for NBC right now?

Today, if you’re an independent producer, it’s nearly impossible to get a show on the air unless the network owns at least a piece of it.

True, but has getting a show “on the air” ever been less relevant for success?  An enterprising content producer wouldn’t get the same audience online that he or she might get on a broadcast or cable network, but they aren’t being shut out of the media landscape.  If that’s the yardstick for success, wouldn’t we have to say the internet as it is works just fine?

Franken starts to make an analogy between internet services providers and cable companies – which is, incidentally, the argument on net neutrality’s side that makes the most sense.   But that assumes the market stays static – that is, that everyone continues to have a wire coming into their house, hooked up to their desktop computer, delivering the internet for the whole family to gather around.

But that isn’t where internet consumption is going.

At the risk of using myself as an example let me use myself as an example: in the morning, I usually check work and personal email on my Blackberry before rolling out of bed.  I check my home computer to see if the Yankees won the night before.  At work, I check sites like Politico routinely, and if an issue I’m working on is about to come up for a Congressional vote I might dial up CSPAN and watch online.  After work, I might go over to Starbucks with the laptop to work on a post or answer emails, using their WiFi.  Count ’em up – that’s four internet providers in a single day.  If I was traveling, there might be more connections – airports, hotels, even planes.   I dare you to try to keep content away from me.

The internet is not a utility like cable, it’s a communications infrastructure.  The providers can’t afford to simply keep content from you, because you can figure it out and change easier than you can if, for example, Comcast refuses to put the NFL Network on a basic cable tier.

Regulating the internet like telephones, or cable, or even broadcast radio and television doesn’t work because those are different technologies and consumed differently.  But don’t blame Franken’s lack of insight on the fact that he made his bones in old-school broadcast network television.  After all, he’s been trying to appeal to net neutrality cheerleader Google to wire Duluth for broadband.  Maybe he’s just trying to scratch their back in hopes they will return the favor later on.

Foursquare of July

Like Mindy Finn of Engage and others, I’ve been trying to figure out Foursquare – not necessarily because I like it, but because it’s my job to know how it works, and how it can be applied.

Vincent Harris of TechRepublican has some good ideas about it, and businesses like Whole Foods have gotten on the bandwagon by asking users to check in.  Some offer discounts for check ins or mayorships.

Yesterday, I was chatting with a small business owner and soon-to-be restaurateur  about ways he could use it for his business.  He wasn’t sold on its utility.  When I checked in at Nationals Park to watch the Washington One-Man Show, a Facebook friend made fun of me for playing “that stalker game.”

It seems like many just aren’t quite sure what to make of Foursquare yet, which is reminiscent of another social media/network craze from a few years ago: Twitter.  When Twitter first hit, it instructed users to tell everyone what they were doing – making it sound like a glorified Facebook status update.  When people started understanding the ability to communicate in public conversations with 140 characters – and the concept of microblogging – Twitter became more than its founders probably imagined it would.

As Foursquare becomes more prevalent, more businesses, organizations, and campaigns will start to take advantage of the ability for people to check in electronically from their phone, and the utility will become more obvious.  Until then, here’s a very telling metric that indicates this isn’t a passing fad: Foursquare’s current value is $95 million, and they’re planning to expand.

Hunting Macaca

Politico’s headline “Democrats seek ‘Macaca moments” aptly describes the DNC’s new Accountability Project, which invites citizens to record and upload videos of Republican politicians saying dumb things.

Because it’s actually a good idea, this has resulted in some hand-wringing on the right amid fears that Democrats are better at grassroots internetting than Republicans.  But that ignores why this is a good idea: the Accountability Project is a national aggregator and message device.  It seeks to crowdsource the Democrats’ messaging to take to most loony Republicans they can find and hold them up as the standard.  It is a pretty clear attempt to re-gain the reins of the national policy debate, which have slipped through the Democrats’ fingers in the past few months.

All that said, by driving messages that show the Republicans are out of touch, Democrats will save their skin and keep control in November.  (They may have done so anyway, but a few macaca moments will help curb GOP momentum.)

So how to combat this?  It’s pretty easy.

Republicans have cameras too, and Democrats are just as prone to saying and doing stupid stuff in front of those cameras.  What if some enterprising conservative with a flip cam catches them in a gaffe, then uploads the video?  It would seem the obvious way to hold the Accountability Project accountable.