Tuesday, May 29, 2007

When “Long Tail” Meets its “Head”: Politicians and/or Citizens on YouTube

Two weeks ago Senator Hillary Clinton posted on YouTube her video “I need your advice”. In the video Hillary is asking Americans one of the "most important questions" of her campaign and calling on voters to choose her official campaign theme song. The video is aimed to reveal a more jovial side of Hillary, as she is joking about the contest and her ability to sing in public. It has meanwhile received over 500,000 views as well as comments and video responses.

One of the respondents to Clinton’s video is James Kotecki, AKA "EmergencyCheese", 21, a recent graduate from Georgetown University. Mr. Kotecki has been recently featured on ABC News, as a young political vlogger who provides tips and pointers to the 2008 presidential candidates about their Web videos. This is what he had to say about Hillary Clinton’s video discussed above:

In recent days we see more and more of the leading politicians on YouTube. One interesting question certainly is whether and how social networking sites like YouTube can and will change the political landscape for the upcoming election. YouTube seems to be a very potent medium, due to its large audience and community, as well as the possibilities associated with the video mode of representation. And yes, YouTube and Google have already figured out their potential role in the 2008 presidential election! YouTube has launched a section for presidential candidates called “YouChoose”, as well as "CitizenTube", a channel in which a YouTube hired “News and Politics” professional editor creates political content and picks interesting clips from around YouTube to share with others. Further it has also been reported that YouTube has struck a deal with CNN to co-sponsor the first of six Democratic Party-sanctioned debates of the 2008 race.

So obviously both YouTube and the presidential candidates seem to be interested in each other, but we still have to see who is going to benefit from this relationship and what the winning strategy will be. I have already written about celebrities such as Paris Hilton or Tyra Banks who attempted to use YouTube in order to promote their shows. Sometimes such attempts worked well, sometimes they failed. The stakes of the presidential campaign are however much higher and presidential candidates should be aware of the risks involved in using media such as YouTube since their official videos are competing on YouTube against funny video mashups that ridicule or criticize them. Parodies of Republican politicians such as George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, or John McCain are notorious, but the list is long and includes democratic presidential candidates as well. These video parodies may have been produced by teenagers as a DIY style of bedroom production, or by professionals hired by political opponents. In any case they are more interesting and funnier and more likely to attract viewers than politicians’ official vlogs. Indeed, it is not surprising that YouTubers largely prefer a mashup parody of John Edwards’ haircut fixing (around 658,855 views), over his most popular official video (around 371,814 views). The truth is that presidential candidates do not fully understand and utilize the potential of YouTube. As suggested by James Kotecki, politicians’ vlogs are not very interactive. They are too scripted and formal and lack the impromptu charm of bedroom broadcasts of YouTube celebrities such as “boh3m3”, “thewinekone”, or “TheHill88”. However some presidential candidates, and among them Senator Clinton, have already made improvements. Her newest video “Pick My Campaign Song: Round 2” is a good example of a more interactive approach. In the video she engages in a dialogue with those who responded to her request to help choose campaign song by creating a funny mash up of most interesting responses. A step further toward even greater interactivity would be to directly address and acknowledge her respondents by their names.
But on the other hand, more interactive videos may prove counterproductive as perhaps was the case in the recent French presidential election. In his discussion about the role of participatory media in French presidential election, Colin Delany quotes Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s thesis that Ségolène Royal's ' participatory citizen-centric strategy has failed to win a majority at the polls among other things also due to her campaign's emphasis on citizen participation. Both Delany and Gobry argue that this strategy “backfired entirely by undermining her perception as a leader and by leaving her dependent on a fatally unrepresentative group of voters”. Although politically and culturally the US and French elections are not easily comparable, Delany’s discussion should caution presidential candidates about some of the risks that online campaigning could entail.

Here are some additional thoughts about the potential and the risks in using YouTube in presidential campaigns:

Social networking. YouTube is not only a video sharing site, but also a social networking site, so if presidential candidates want to become members of YouTube communities, they should be leaving comments, subscribing to other people’s videos and getting local celebrities to subscribe to their videos and/or put them on their contact lists, as a form of “celebrity endorsement”. But on the other hand, the “Long Tail” may not be so enthusiastic to embrace its “Head” and attempts to recruit them (which are probably already happening!) could backfire. Both politicians and YouTube celebrities may be renounced as “cheaters” and lose their online and/or offline reputations. As we know previous attempts of various commercial entities to recruit YouTube celebrities to migrate to their websites, or to promote their product were exposed and condemned by the YouTube community. For the presidential candidates the main risk is to lose their authority and their credibility by having to depend on amateur teenage stars.
However, in some cases YouTubers can successfully meditate the participation of presidential candidates and actually increase their own and the featured presidential candidate’s online and offline reputations. A good example is again James Kotecki who invited presidential candidates to a “real conversation” and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel stopped by the 21-year-old's dorm room for interviews.

Performing authenticity and identity. YouTube is citizen media, inhabited by users who negotiate their reputation by creating and sharing content (videos, comments, profile pages, etc.), and who see themselves as an alternative to mainstream media. However, presidential candidates are not really citizens, but public personas, who have access to mainstream media and substantial monetary and social capital. They are YouTube users, but they also “use” YouTube in order to boost their popularity and reputation outside of YouTube. This by itself raises suspicion in the eyes of other YouTube users who embrace authenticity as one of the main values of their community, especially if presidential candidates pose as if they are citizens or our friends. For obvious reasons politicians cannot perform “authenticity” in the way teenagers who broadcast from their bedrooms do. However, politicians should act as sincere as they could in creating their self-presentations on YouTube and avoid pretending to be younger, more jovial, or more ordinary—they should perform their “real” identities of public figures who aspire to lead the nation and demonstrate qualities that such leadership requires.

Forms of expression and cultural conflicts There seems to be a cultural conflict between “serious” videos produced by politicians (even when they attempt to be jocular!) and the dominant cultural practices on YouTube such as parody, “lampooning”, and “spoofing”. Furthermore, my observations of how American youth express their political sentiments also indicate that music video mashups are a more engaging form of expression, than direct addresses and “talking heads”, suggesting that the music video form could be a very compelling format in YouTube presidential campaigns. Although music video has been primarily associated with youth culture, with the maturation of the MTV generation music video has become a rather pervasive marketing device for multigenerational audiences.
Additional forms of cultural conflict may happen around the norms and rules of engagement. “Hate” speech often goes unpunished on YouTube and forms of manipulation and cheating are sometimes but not always exposed. For example, an anti-Clinton video mashup has eventually been linked to the work of a supporter of rival Democratic candidate Barack Obama, but that discovery did not have much of an effect because the video had already been downloaded by multiple users and had become the most popular video tagged “hillary”. Although presidential campaigns are notorious for dirty tricks, those may be even less transparent in online media such as YouTube. Paradoxically although YouTube makes certain behaviors more visible, like in the case of LAPD’s "tazering" of a UCLA student for example, it makes less transparent the source of information and the process of authoring. As a result, those who break the rules of fairness may never be identified.

In order to avoid those risks presidential candidates may decide to keep a rather “low profile” on YouTube and participate minimally. Following the strategy of the newly elected French president Nicolas Sarkozy they may decide to invest in the traditional forms of political campaigning if they believe the hazards of backfire are too high, but this is very unlikely to happen. Politicians and their advisers, like the rest of us, seem to be absolutely seduced by the potential of social media to reach both mass and “niche” audiences. However in order to fully leverage the power of YouTube as a social medium, presidential candidates' online campaigns should be decentralized and mediated by other YouTube users who would promote presidential candidates that they support, by creating content and engaging in conversations with other YouTubers. In other words, presidential candidates should not just be talking to YouTubers, but mobilizing YouTubers to talk for them. However in order for this to happen, presidential candidates should pay more attention to political conversations that are already happening on YouTube (e.g., the Iraq war, the issue of net neutrality, etc) and address those issues in their YouTube campaigns. After all, the YouTube phenomenon demonstrates the power of media to engage millions of people to create content if they are given an opportunity to express their beliefs and passions, and share them with a large audience.