Off Message May 2007

Dancing Horses

What a dancing horse tell us about the way digital technology is changing political news.

Last week a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video of a dancing horse. Maybe you've seen it. The horse is named Blue Hors Matine. The video is six and a half minutes long and worth every second—that horse can move.

As of a few days ago, the video had been viewed 3 million times, which is more than the number of people who tuned into any of the first three presidential debates. This week's Republican debate in South Carolina drew about 2.5 million viewers. The GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library a few weeks back attracted fewer than 2 million.

YouTube traffic is different from Nielsen ratings. The horse video has been flying around the world for months, while a televised debate can be broadcast live only once. And amusing screen fare is not the same thing as deciding who should be the country's next leader. Still, a viral dancing horse has something to tell us about the way digital technology is changing political news, and politics itself.

The media explosion of the last decade has had obvious effects on political communication. For candidates, the Web is a potent tool for getting the message out and pulling the money in. For voters, there are now many more places to find political news and propaganda—millions more when you include the blogs.

Supposedly, the most significant and dangerous result of all this is the atomization of the audience: People are reportedly leaving the old media gathering places, clustering instead in pods with others of their own political persuasion. Goodbye, morning newspaper and the nightly news; hello, Daily Kos and Townhall.com.

I'm skeptical about alarmist claims that this trend reflects how most voters think about politics. Yes, true ideologues—and we all know some of those—want to confirm only what they already believe. But in my experience most people are not that rigid or even all that political.

There's another kind of atomization happening that's at least as important as the splintering of the audience, though it doesn't get discussed much. I'm talking about the atomization of campaign news itself, the debates, speeches, and other events that tell us who these candidates are.

In the predigital era, the campaign season was truly a season. And because there were only a handful of news outlets that mattered, it was relatively easy to keep up. If there was a debate, you sat down and watched it, listened to the after-commentary, and read the next morning's coverage in the paper. You consumed and digested the whole event. Easy.

Elections are now a year-round, full-time business, with each campaign constantly shoveling content into the maw of all those new outlets. The debates and traditional interviews have proliferated, as have the Web sites, blogs, podcasts, and videos. The epitome of this new world is "Senator Mike Gravel Visits My Dorm Room," a four-part YouTube series.

Nobody can keep up with all this stuff. So we filter it, relying on the modern equivalent of the old grapevine—Web headlines, little bits that come up at the office and over lunch, clips e-mailed by friends. In most cases, you don't see the event itself or read a full written account. You get just the sliver that generated buzz.

To make the cut, the bit has to be pretty amazing, like a dancing horse. Thus, campaign news is more and more about one-liners, weird exchanges, jaw-dropping flubs, and other arresting moments. These are different from what used to be called sound bites, which were implicitly calculated. They tend to have a more spontaneous, did-you-see-that quality. This is the Age of Macaca.

Journalists understand the new ecology of news. That's why the questions being put to the candidates are getting self-consciously grabby. You don't make Google News by asking for detailed health care solutions. You make it by asking if the candidate had premarital sex with his wife.

It's impossible to know where all this is heading. Maybe 2008 will be like 1960, and the White House will go to the candidate who grasps the power of the new medium. Who is the master of the buzzable moment? Keep your eye on the dancing horse.

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