YouTube’s Political Revolution

March 27, 2008 |

Obama's YouTube videos -- the ten most watched being an average 15 minutes in length -- have been viewed 33 million times. Have we gone from the age of the sound bit to the "sound blast" thanks to the Internet? The founders of the media technology conference, Personal Democracy Forum, point to an important shift in political media.

nixon kennedy.jpg

Welcome to the Age of the Soundblast

By Micah L. Sifry & Andrew Rasiej 3/26/08

If 1960 was the year that TV displaced radio as the main platform for political persuasion, then the 2008 primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton may go down in history as the moment when the Internet ended the dominance of television.

The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate was the harbinger of TV's rise.

Afterward, people who listened to John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon on the radio thought Nixon had won the debate. But the larger group of television viewers was swayed not just by what they heard, but also by what they saw, and they thought Kennedy had won.

However, as politicians began adapting to the demands of television, the medium itself also changed as commercial pressures drove in-depth reporting to the sidelines and infotainment came to the fore. One tangible measure of this shift was seen in the so-called "shrinking sound bite."

In the 1968 presidential election, the average amount of time given to a sound bite from presidential candidate on the network news shows was 43 seconds. In 1972 it dropped to 25. By 1988, it had shrunk to 9.8 seconds, and in 1996, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs and the Brookings Institution, to just 8.2 seconds. By 2004, a study by USC and the University of Wisconsin found that it had risen slightly to 10.3 seconds, but for all intents and purposes this was hardly much of an improvement.

Until now, all of national politics has operated within the context of those shrinking numbers. Since TV was the only way to reach millions of voters, and the only way to get your message across was to a) buy expensive airtime for 30-second TV ads or b) get free airtime by saying something memorable (and not damaging, unless aimed at your opponent), successful politicians have gotten very good at sticking to their talking points, speaking in sound-bites, and avoiding gaffes or detailed conversations as much as possible.

Writing in 2002, Democratic consultants James Carville and Paul Begala summed up the conventional wisdom this way: "Complaining about the shrinking sound bite is like griping about the weather; it may make you feel better for a while, but it's not going to change anything. ... You can't expect people who only listen to their president for a few seconds to listen to you for an hour and a half."

Barack Obama is proving these assumptions are out of date. By giving lengthy, substantive speeches, putting them all on YouTube and encouraging his supporters to spread them, he is breaking the mold.

Instead of relying on the TV networks, he is relying on the people's network that is the Internet. And he is proving that the sound blast may be more powerful than the sound bite. This is the upside of the "macaca" moment.

So far, Obama's videos have been viewed more than 33 million times on -- and that's not counting partial views, since YouTube only reports a full viewing as a "view." His campaign has uploaded more than 800 video clips, and adds several more a day.

If you just look at his ten most viewed videos, here are some astonishing facts:

- The average number of views for these top ten is currently more than 1.1 million (nearly double the average from a month ago!)

- The average length of these ten videos is 13.3 minutes.

- There have been nearly 3.9 million views of the longest of Obama's most popular videos, his "A More Perfect Union" speech on race in America.

By contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton's YouTube numbers are nowhere as impressive as Obama's -- a sign of her failure to understand and embrace the new medium than anything else. She's garnered about 10.5 million views, but the average length of her top ten most viewed clips is only two minutes. Several of her top ten videos are actually 30-second TV ads, in fact.

Viewed in this context, it becomes clearer how important Obama's speech on race has been to his continued lead in the Democratic race.

In a pre-Internet era, the manifold replayings on television of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sound bites denouncing America would probably have deeply damaged Obama's candidacy. But millions of voters have been flocking to the web to watch his 37-minute response to the controversy, and observers across the spectrum -- from Peggy Noonan to Andrew Sullivan to Jon Stewart -- have praised Obama for speaking from the heart and appealing to people's intelligence.

The sound-biting of politics isn't dead. Not yet. But welcome to the age of the sound blast. The weather is changing.

Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry are, respectively, founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, an online magazine and annual conference on how technology is changing politics.


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