Posted by: Arik Hesseldahl on November 14, 2008
Consider for a moment that the last time this nation elected a president that YouTube didn’t exist. Then consider for a moment how important Google’s YouTube and sites like it played in the political discourse of 2008. When the historians look back on the election just completed, they won’t be able to ignore the role that YouTube played in getting out the messages of the various candidates. TV ads wound up on YouTube before they hit the airwaves, as did unedited political speeches. Personally I think its possible that 2008 will be remembered as the YouTube election in the same way that the 1960 election is now remembered for being the first Television election. Had John F. Kennedy not looked so good on television in the debates, he might not have won, what was an incredibly close election.
So where does YouTube as a political force go from here? Owen Thomas at Valleywag argues that its prominence during the election cycle was part of a clever strategy to boost Google’s influence with the incoming Obama Administration (and I would argue it would have also played a role had McCain won, but probably less so).
Google hasn’t had an easy time of it with the Bush Administration’s Justice Department having seen its proposed deal with Yahoo fall apart after a threat of a lawsuit by that agency. Additionally, Thomas argues…. “Google mostly wants a free hand from Washington to cement its lead in online advertising — but it also wants help bullying telephone and cable companies into letting its services and ads flow unimpeded on high-speed broadband lines and cell phones, a cause it has dubbed ‘network neutrality.’”
He then paints a picture of politicians being shown their campaign videos and then asked rhetorically how they would feel if this or that telco slowed them down. By making itself indispensable to the political class as the preferred way of reaching young voters, YouTube has made itself as much a part of the political communications machine as say, “Meet The Press.”
Now that Obama has announced that he plans as president to broadcast his weekly address to the nation not only over the radio, as presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have done, but also on YouTube, Thomas says something doesn’t smell right, and calls the incoming president’s arrangement with YouTube “unspoken, behind-the-scenes government kickback.”
Perhaps. Thomas is right to raise an eyebrow. But who says YouTube will have the exclusive on these “fireside chats,” once they’re released? Sure, most people will turn to YouTube to find them, and as such generate revenue-generating traffic and advertising revenue for Google. But presidential addresses, like practically everything a president does, is a matter of public business, and so there’s nothing stopping other video sites from grabbing the raw feeds and re-publishing them on their own sites, and even improving on them. And? There’s also the obligatory response from the opposition, which will no doubt appear on YouTube and anywhere else as well.
And who’s going to watch these things anyway? The only time I ever hear the president’s weekly radio address is when I happen to be in a car on Saturday afternoon and listening to 1010 WINS because I want to hear the traffic report. The weekly radio address isn’t exactly riveting political theater, and pushing it to YouTube will be a nice curiosity for the first few weeks of the Obama Administration, but I can’t imagine the traffic they’ll generate for YouTube will in the end amount to much as a percentage of its overall traffic.