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New Media Forms Boost Youth Participation In Debates

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New media forms continue to electrify the 2008 election season by propelling candidates' messages - and our opinions of them - across the Web. Last Friday, the traditional medium of television blended with social media for the Current TV and Twitter project, "Hack the Debate". This unique "two-screen media opportunity" aims to boost youth participation, broadcast expression from digitally connected folks to their peers, and turn passive watchers into participants. "Hack the Debate II" gears up for the highly anticipated vice presidential debate, featuring Joseph Biden and Sarah Palin, tonight.

For the first presidential debate on September 26th, user-driven cable network Current TV featured "tweets" (messages of 140 character or less) from microblogging platform Twitter's users on its broadcast of the McCain/Obama match-up. Chloe Sladden, Vice President of Special Programming Projects for Current TV, describes that by doing this, they are "really trying to create a new form of media borrowing the best of these two platforms." As the candidates answered moderator Jim Lehrer's [link] questions and sparred with each other, concise mini-takes on the debate appeared at the bottom of the screen, then floated up and away as new tweets replaced them.

The tweets featured on television represented a wide range of viewpoints. Obama and McCain supporters made their cases. Undecided voters announced occasionally throughout, "I still don't know who to vote for." Others Twitterers shared personal tallies they kept as one candidate repeated a key talking point too many times, misstated facts, or told the truth. While viewers learned no personal information about who was tweeting (Twitter asks for no demographic information from users), they did directly experience, in real time, what many others are thinking about this key presidential election. And, if Current TV viewers also tweeted during the debate, they might have seen their own viewpoints make the leap from computer monitor to television screen. Overall, no single tone or message predominated; this representation of varied views is one of the project's great strengths. Ms. Sladden explains: "Our main goal here was to move away from the political theater that you get with cable news and paid pundits doing their normal spin, where you can almost predict what you're going to hear because we've heard it all before." Twitter users -- speaking spontaneously, honestly and, very often, with great insight -- added a genuine, fresh dimension.

From the thousands of tweets blazing across Twitter's public timeline, Current TV filterers chose those fitting certain criteria. They asked themselves, "Are the tweets in context to the debate? Are they timely to what the candidates are saying?" says Sladden. They also mined for "compelling points of view, so if something caught our eye or showed a range of or a compelling perspective, that's the kind of thing we wanted to present." As long as these tweets also fit Current's broadcast and community standards, they made the big screen. Twitter users who knew about "Hack" included the "#current" hashtag in their tweets so that Current filterers could find them more easily. She explains, "We really focused on people using it because we knew that they were actively engaged. But at the same time, we were really looking across the entire database of Twitterers. We wanted to make sure we were getting as full a picture as we could."

The Twitter commentary appeared constantly throughout the debate at the bottom of the television screen. Viewers had no need to wait for an end-game expert to explain what they had just seen. During "Hack", mainstream-media analysts were preempted by members of a largely self-chosen digital village: the Twitterverse (which is made up of many smaller groups whose users decide for themselves whose "tweets" to "follow"). The Twitter peers of the Current TV viewers tweeted, and they were heard.

Current TV and Twitter are readying themselves for increased traffic from the highly anticipated debate between vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin this evening. By adding an interactive edge to the traditional, communal experience of television, there is bound to be social impact, though it is still to be determined because this media is so new. Connecting young TV viewers to their social media counterparts could prove powerful; they know of each other now, and they can talk. Former Vice President Al Gore, one of Current TV's co-founders, says, "The demographic that Current is aimed at really prefers to watch and absorb an event like this with their peers and their friends." Those in media will continue to analyze and understand the social networks of 18-34 year olds, in both the virtual and "real" worlds. Media's future depends on it.

Democracy's future may depend on this, too. Ms. Sladden describes another exciting possibility for television's future combined with other platforms. "What if we really made this ["Hack the Debate"] a Town Hall meeting? If we really opened it up to the young adult audience who is using this technology, what would happen? How much more complex is the actual picture of American democracy when you really unleash it, instead of looking at it through the one-way path of cable news?"

As technology continues to influence public discourse, the media must adapt. Current's Sladden explains that "...consumption and creation are going to come closer and closer together" as media platforms continue to morph, re-form and broadcast. Technology developments will, in part, shape these changes.

Inclusive media forms which allow anyone to learn, connect and converse will play increasingly important roles in people's lives, especially regarding future elections.

Just as long as everyone participates.

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Would you like to participate in "Hack the Debate II" this evening? Here's how you can:
1.If you're not already on Twitter, join it here. (Are you a fan of or affiliated with OffTheBus? Pick a user name like "OffTheBusBob", and we'll look for you during the debate.)
2. Log on to Twitter during the VP debates. Tweet away, and include the "#current" hashtag in your tweet to signal your participation to Current.
3. Watch the Biden/Palin debate on Current TV. If you don't get Current in your area, you can watch the live debate stream, complete with rolling tweet commentary, at Current.com.