Online Presidential Debate Distances the Candidates

    by Mark Glaser
    April 23, 2007

    i-77b951ea3758e6c1707f9170ec0d5da5-American flag.jpg
    The handshake at the beginning. The sideways glances and furious note-taking. The occasional interruption. The partisan cheering. These are the hallmarks of presidential debates of years past. Yet, Yahoo, Slate and the Huffington Post believe that having the candidates in distant locations hooked up virtually online will make for a better “user-generated” debate.

    The troika of websites recently announced plans for two online-only presidential debates in the fall — one for Democrats and one for Republicans. The debates will be hosted on Yahoo, with video archived on Slate and Huffington Post. Average folks will be able to submit questions to the candidates, but the questions will be chosen ahead of time by PBS host Charlie Rose.

    “It’s a really significant, historic opportunity for the candidates to test their debate skills in a brand new format,” Yahoo’s director of news and information Scott Moore told the AP.


    But I wonder just how much of a step forward the new format would be for a public debate. Having candidates in different locations means we don’t have a feel for where they are and what situation they are in. There’s something daunting and real about candidates up on stage under the lights having to answer questions posed by someone sitting right in front of them.

    Unless the technology is down cold, I can’t see this becoming a crystal clear communication mechanism that will offer spontaneity and continuity throughout an hour-long debate. When was the last time you were on a videoconference call where everyone could hear each other and tell what everyone else was doing and saying at the same time without any snafus?

    And let’s not even start to consider what will happen when Yahoo gets overloaded with thousands of questions and will have to serve millions of streams of live video to all the viewers who want to watch the debates live.


    ‘User-Generated Politics’

    I contacted Yahoo’s Moore to ask him to explain the debate beyond what was reported in the basic AP story. I wanted to know why this was going to be a significantly different debate, and here’s his explanation via email:

    Well, for one thing, the format we’re planning will be to have the candidates all online at the same time but in different locations. So rather than a highly formal setting, we’ll have camera crews go to the candidates wherever they are on the campaign trail. That’s different.

    Second, the questions are going to come from the audience. Yahoo has run several programs already using its Answers software. In the case of Hillary Clinton, she posted a question that generated over 38,000 answers from our users. In the weeks leading up the online debate, Slate, Huffington Post and Yahoo will all offer users the opportunity to submit questions. Charlie Rose will sort through them and pick the best to ask the questions.

    Third, while the debate is live, users will have the opportunity to rate the quality of a candidate’s answer to a particular question. If you like Barack Obama’s answer to a question on foriegn policy for example, you’ll be able to give him a ‘virtual thumbs up.’ We will track the ratings in real time so our audience will have a running view of how people watching the debate feel about the quality of the candidate’s answers to question.

    Last, we’ll archive the debate content so if you miss the live event, you’ll easily be able to look up a candidate’s answer on a particular topic even after the debate. You won’t have to rely on a filter of media pundits to analyze the performances of the candidates even if you can’t log on when it’s live.

    I like the idea for real-time ratings of the candidates and what they’re saying, but I could also see how campaigns could try to jam the ratings in the favor of their candidates. I have to give the three sites credit for trying something different and experimental in the presidential campaigning realm — and for their smarts in choosing something guaranteed to bring them traffic.

    Moore says that this online presidential debate is part of Yahoo’s push into “user-generated politics.”

    “Through Yahoo’s social networking tools like Flickr, Jumpcut, Upcoming.org, Answers, Groups and Yahoo Video in combination with our leading news site and the power of Yahoo’s network, we intend to be the online leader in election coverage.”

    Those are all pretty powerful features of Yahoo, but the problem has always been integration among Yahoo’s sites — without angering the denizens of each one.

    And perhaps integration will be the trickiest part of an online debate as well. Where will the candidates be? Where will Charlie Rose be? Where will the audience be? Bringing them together for a unified experience on a computer screen will be a huge challenge. And it will have to overcome the loss of live interactions we’re used to seeing in debates. There’s something real and human about candidates sharing the stage, trading barbs and trying to look presidential under the klieg lights.

    What do you think? Are online-only debates a good idea? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Photo of the American flag by Jonathon Colman.

    Tagged: election politics videos
    • While the real-time aspect is unique (not sure if it will share the Net’s full value), there have been past online debates. In 2000 there was Web White and Blue and in 1996, DNet hosted a “Digital Debates” issues position grid updated by candidates.

      I detail this and E-Democracy.Org’s proposal for e-debates here: http://www.dowire.org/notes/?p=349

      Steven Clift

    • Charlie Rose is a good choice. And it’ll be interesting to see the effect of combining a moderated discussion with the freeform nature of the participant web…

      And Yahoo has a focus on content and generating it which is their key differentiator from Google. Even still this would be a major piece of web production.

      Giving thumbs up or down to the answers will effectively become a measure of how many active members of whichever party is online. Commitment is key, and last time out it was the Republicans who were committed… remember those lines in the rain, those coachloads heading down to Florida to protest and hassle.

      Should be interesting…

    • I agree with your skepticism, Mark. We’re becoming exponentially removed from “real” experiences, and online forums only seem to exacerbate the problem. It’s almost like saying you could manage your money better if only there were more ATMs.

      Related: MySpace will be hosting a reality show called “Independent” about wouldbe presidential contenders. Spooky.



    • Chris Newman

      I like the idea of having online presidential debates, but I don’t think they will work. Viewers have to deal with the potential problems that may occur if there are to many people trying to watch the video. Also, I don’t have the most up to date laptop and when watching videos, my computer slows down and the video skips. This is a problem that Yahoo may have not thought of. This is something that a normal debate wouldn’t have on television. The idea of online debates seems like it could give America an idea on who would be the front runner, but I just don’t see many people watching them.

    • yolanda ortiz

      With convergence being the main theme of the industry, and with the upcoming presidential election it was only a matter of time before this idea was conceived.

      I don`t necessarily think it is a horrible idea, but it is not the greatest. For one, as Steve says earlier we are beig removed from “real” experiences. Instead of going out to hear these candidates we can sit on our lazy behinds and interact that way. It`s just one more way the web contributes to anti-socialism. I am not criticizing the web`s capabilites at all, but I think most people can agree that computers,web have a lot of people confined to their four walls of existence.

      Part of the whole campaigning process is going to debates and watching the way the candidates react and present themselves with the audience and with the other candidates. We would be missing a huge peice of the political process.

      I really like the idea of Yahoo allowing userrs to submit questions. It gives everyone the opportunity to get involved, with everyone haveing a chance of asking a question. The virtual thumbs up or down is a neat idea that kills a few birds with one stone; ratings, feedback, and interactivity.

      As long as web-based debates don`t take over the traditional setting (which I don`t think will) it will be just one more element that can be added to the web`s capabilities and the new media. Also having these two platforms hand in hand will provide more opportunity for our citizens to participate in the political arena, which is always a good thing!

    • I will be interested to see how this plays out. I share other’s skepticism if the technology is up to the challenge of matching or surpassing the experience of watching a live televised debate.

      On the question of “where”: one of the advantages of using virtual worlds like Second Life versus the web is that it provides a 3D “where” context that seems more real and interactive for viewers and participants. In virtual worlds you can create a simulated town hall-format that gives one a much stronger impression of being “there.”

      And, perhaps more importantly, it gathers citizens together who can interact with each other afterwards and share their impressions of the debate, regardless of physical distance, nationality or mobility.

      Yahoo should work with Second Life to have a virtual component to their webcast, enabling a richer dialogue and experience for viewers.

    • While the thumbs up aspect may seem like a great idea, it won’t work unless Yahoo!, Slate, the Huffington Post go full force in promoting this. Otherwise, you’ll have – without a doubt – candidate loyalists jamming the system so to speak.

      Also, it would have probably have made sense (and perhaps this was attempted) to bring in a relatively conservative publication to counter the left leaning H Post and Slate.

      Other than that, I think anything that gets candidates talking about issues and what they would do to help solve problems is a plus.

    • Carrie

      I don’t think that Online-debates are a bad idea at all. I don’t think they are the most efficient, but I do like the idea of being able to give a candidate a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. I like the idea of being able to submit questions for the candidates.

      I think that it’s great that you would be able to search through the information and get a run-down of what candidates feel about certain issues.

      I think that that’s what makes these things so great. People like to be able to search through information quickly so that they can find out exactly what they are looking for.

      I dont think that online debates should replace face-to-face debates because I think there is something to be said for debating with someone who is in the same room and taking questions from an audience.

      I think that this is a great way to reach out to online viewers and maybe make the presidential election more interesting to another type of audience.

    • I definitely love the idea that candidates are using the web in unique and interesting ways to (ideally) bring more people into the process. (BTW, http://www.techpresident.com is a great resource for keeping up with how the candidates are using technology). However, I would hate to see these sorts of events supplant actual in-person live debates. You can learn a lot about someone by how they act in front of a crowd, and also what they say about their opponents when their opponents are standing a few feet away.

    • Mike I.

      I believe that the idea proposed by Yahoo, Slate, and the Huffington Post is the beginning of what is to come in future years of presidential elections. By starting the shift now to an online setting for these debates, they have evolved American politics into the age of technology. Having online capabilities for such debates would lead to increased political news to reach the nation and be accessible by the majority of this country.

      Although this idea is very promising, there are still many problems that may arise in the beginning shifts to an online format. By being able to send in questions from the American public, which is undeniably a great idea, there may be some to some problems in judging the questions to find the few that will be selected and be asked during the debate. What’s to stop the candidate parties from sending in their own eloquent questions and brush aside the true questions of the average folks whose question may not be as fluent? The small amount of questions that will be selected overall, even if by PBS host Charlie Rose, will diminish the idea of a public involvement.

      Also, the debate setting of the competition between candidates will be removed by having them all broadcast their answers from separate locations. Half the debate is not in the questions and answers, but the reactions from the other candidates to a response. I fear that by having the online format, the comparison between candidates will be lost and all that would be left is presidential candidates answering questions. Nothing would have changed except from watching the debate from your TV to your laptop; causing no main draw to the shift.

      The idea has a great potential but it needs to incorporate the public into the debate so that the American voice is heard. There is plenty of time to adapt the policy, so by starting now, the system should be prepared for the upcoming elections.

    • Scott Hobohm

      I agree with this format for a presedential debate. It helps to divorce the observer from the insignifigant details that so often can drive a candidate out of the running. A good example is Al Gore in the 2000 election. Many were turned off by his personal behavior during his debate with G.W. Bush (myself included). The camera cought him often reacting to Bush’s comments with deep sighs and bahavior showing frustration. In hind sight I let some of that sway my decision and cloud my judgement concerning who was the better candidate. The format described for this debate will help alleviate some of the susceptability of the observer to be taken in by the extraneous issues of the debate. However, I am not a proponent of doing away with live debates all together. As with most topics in life, a variety of venues and settings best give the observer a total picture of the true character and abilities of the candidates.

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