Walking around Charleston, SC before and after the Democratic CNN/YouTube Presidential Debate, I was struck by three things:
First; based on what appeared to be very high demand, blonde hair dye is probably running about the same market rate as a barrel of oil in South Carolina. I hope the region won't become dependent on foreign supplies.
Second; the debate lived up to the hype. It was revolutionary. And just about everyone else I've spoken with since the debate's conclusion agrees, at the very least, that presidential debates will not (or should not) be the same after this.
Most importantly, though; despite the debate's success and Charleston being abuzz with talk of the event, there were still an awful lot of people in the middle of downtown that didn't know about it - even with all the press running around - and no one I talked to had had felt compelled to submit questions or actively participate.
So what now?
While YouTube has obviously thrown its platform and Google's muscle behind the political process, I think there is another level to which they can take the concept of citizen engagement through video: Partner with Starbucks (or any number of other pervasive institutions across the United States such as libraries or volunteer centers - you should read this too, Dunkin Donuts) to set up permanent cameras where local citizenry can engage with and ask questions of their elected leaders.
It might not be that easy, but it wouldn't be that difficult - at least not difficult enough not to try. It's also good business.
Each local institution could establish local rules based on the needs of its surrounding community, though a couple standard guidelines should probably apply. Among them: no video can be longer than 1 minute; you must be registered to vote to submit video; videos will be uploaded to local, state, or national officials' YouTube pages on a regular basis (maybe bi-weekly). Candidates or officials can choose to reply back through video or any other means. Maybe local meetings? There are myriad possibilities, as the process is most certainly not one size fits all, but the point is that the conversation happens in the first place.
On the business end, I wouldn't doubt if YouTube and/or Google is thinking they don't want to get too much into the bricks and mortar business. But why not give it a shot prior to the primaries? They're trying just about everything else (and I say that with all due respect). The YouTube political team could pretty easily pick a state or a few towns to pilot the idea. Next: build a strong national relationship with another corporation who wants to be part of creating a more engaged and democratic citizenry. Volunteer and other community engagement initiatives are strong components of many companies' CSR programs, so there's plenty to choose from. Despite how hard it is for anything non-Starbucks owned to get into a Starbucks store, their CSR team (as well as Dunkin's and McDonald's) should like the idea. If they don't, let's talk about why - or find another place to start. After that it's more or less time to go make it happen. The halo effect of such an effort would undoubtedly create positive PR, and increased content on websites and/or foot traffic in doors is a great thing for shareholders.
On the this-is-simply-a-good-thing-to-do end, having pre-established "community points" where people can connect with their fellow citizens and elected leaders solves - or at least helps solve - several other problems with engaging Americans in the political process.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post encouraging people to go out and help marginalized members of their communities participate in the CNN/YouTube debate because the digital divide makes it nearly impossible for many to do so. (I.e. many people don't have access to video equipment or broadband internet.) As I walked around Charleston, though, and talked to women like Brenda outside the Charleston Place Hotel, I realized the problem is not only the marginalized who don't participate because of digital divide issues - the problem is just as equally affluent folks who won't engage in the process simply because it's too time consuming or inconvenient. They might get involved; but only if it's made easier.
So why don't we try to make it easier for everyone. Rich or poor; apathetic or passionate. It doesn't necessarily have to be YouTube sanctioned (it should be though - the brand is powerful), and a location partner doesn't have to be Starbucks (it should be though - the brand is... well... you buy it whether you like it or not). This can be done in any place that people gather. Put some cameras up around town at local institutions - work with nonprofits - and make it fun and accessible for people to participate in the way they did for the democratic presidential debate.
Re-democratizing America is going to take creative measures like this to get a majority of the population actively participating. We need to engage people where they are - not necessarily where we think they should be - and that means being in the most popular of places online and off, and creating innovative public/private partnerships.
Google and CNN got together and made a revolutionary debate happen for the democratic candidates. Let's take this further and engage even more people beyond their TV and computer screens.