Thursday, August 2, 2007

Can We Stop With The New Media, Please?

Over at The Huffington Post, proprietor and head important lady person Arianna Huffington is asking for submissions for a campaign candidate mash-up. If you want to read about it, go to her site and do that very thing. If you are unambitious (to keep it real, I am. I had to force myself to read it when I did), I will summarize.

The general idea of the mash-up is that people will submit questions through the website. Charlie Rose, master skirt chaser and professional interviewer, will proceed to ask those questions to the candidates. Each candidate will get the same questions. With that, Huffington and her gang of tech folks will proceed to put their answers online. This doesn't sound very mash-uppy, does it? The mash-up component comes from the fact that you can view the information anyway that you want. You can look at Tom Tancredo, Mike Gravel, and Mike Huckabee's stances on immigration and public health care together to see whose opinion you like more. While most people are unlikely to look at that compilation of talent and, in someone's opinion, asshattery, this is the flexibility allowed by the new format.

With this said, can people stop doing this? I've already expressed my displeasure with the new ways in which the Internet is being used for political discourse. I thought that the CNN/YouTube debate was a stupid concept. It was made even worse by its poor execution and the predictability of the questions. I don't fault the questioners for this. If anything, the questioners were articulate and not very insulting to themselves, the candidates, or the viewer. All of the blame lies on CNN who marshaled the debate terribly, giving the big three more time than the others and giving them more predictable questions as well.

The primary problem with this format is that it doesn't really catch any of the candidates off-guard because all of the questions are filtered through the media. All of the questions selected are very straightforward on topics that the candidates have been discussing for a while, so they already have studied, practiced answers that they can concisely present in a soundbite or with hollow bulletpoints. Even in the presidential debates held by the debate council (the real name is Commission on Presidential Debates), not these primary debates, the questions are usually predictable and the format far too structured, as in the candidates already know what the question area is and have time to prepare for such question areas. The interactivity in these debates only works to cover up these glaring faults in the American debate system.

But, these arguments are not addressed by the strategists and others who say that the Internet is the future of politics. They point at the fact that so many young people do things online. Because of this, politicians are using their websites to attract younger people to politics. You know who those younger people attracted to their websites are? Asshats like me: political junkies who know all three branches of government, understand parliamentary rules, can recite from memory all of my congressional representatives, who know all the Supreme Court justices (Ginsburg, Scalia, Thomas, Souter, Kennedy, Chief Justice Roberts, Alito, Stevens, and Breyer), and can actually explain why Alberto Gonzales is in such trouble right now (I know that someone out there has taken offense with me calling them an asshat. Whatever. Stop being an asshat and laugh at yourself for a moment). We are the kids that don't need reaching; we are already interested in politics. If anything, the fact that they are invading the space where I was actually safe from politics (to a degree) really only makes their artificiality and transparent attempts to seem cool worse.

If the politicians are trying to get other young people interested in politics, the web presence isn't really helping their cause. There are so many other things that you can do on the Internet instead of read about Joe Biden's stance towards ending the war in Iraq via diplomatic means or perusing Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani's foreign policy stances. Hell, I like politics and I don't want to do this. How could they expect anyone who isn't interested in politics to do this?

Something that is lost on the older folks is that just because something is on the Internet doesn't get rid of their apathy. Many young people just don't care about politics. And I don't really blame them. It is rife with corruption and bad choices on all sides. There are only two parties, neither of which speak to them. The Internet, if anything, will further disenfranchise those who are not interested by the power relations in play at all level of politics.

This is a picture of Barack Obama's campaign website. It is a campaign post. It is another artifice, allowing the candidate to craft an image of himself and use meticulously crafted language to make a point. This website is good because it saves trees from having to be killed to print out campaign information, and it also puts that information in one centralized place, which is kind of nice. This archival reasons aside, the website isn't what politics needs.

Politics literally needs more focused person-to-person interaction and more public discourse. Because of the strict fractioning of the Internet, it is easy for people to not pay attention to these websites. Additionally, because many of us have been trained to be distrustful of pretty much everything on the Internet, how am I supposed to believe that he is more right than someone else. On top of all of this, the Internet does not give me a clean perspective of the candidate and his/her persona. Are they friendly, trustworthy, and gregarious or aloof, fraudulent, and cold? These are things that can't be determined from a website. These have to be experienced in person, as it is hard to relate to an image of someone, especially when that someone will most likely make decisions that will influence your life, either for the positive or negative, for the next four years.

All of this complaining about using the Internet as a marketing tool makes me sound like an old man, but even old people like this new way of campaigning as clearly proven by Arianna Huffington sponsoring this new event with Yahoo! and Slate. Maybe I hold too much stock in unscripted public appearances. But, I don't think this is a bad thing. I think this just means that I have faith in the political system as it works now where door-to-door campaigning and shaking hands means more than making a couple of clicks on my computer.