The theater was packed: young people, including delegates from across the country; old people, a number of whom admitted to just not getting Facebook. But they were all here for the man who created the phenomenon of "Yes We Can." If only he could explain it.
Flanked by other online luminaries, rapper/producer Will.i.am, dressed in a black single-button suit, silver tie, and snazzy black vinyl sneakers, addressed the captive crowd and they listened, they cheered, and then they tried to involve him in their own online ventures.
The panel, rather grandiosely referred to as "Viral Videos and Social Networks: How Campaigning Has Changed Forever" and part of the Sea Change Ideas Forum, began with a seemingly endless loop of "Yes We Can," as if anyone in the room wasn't already familiar with the hit viral video that, according to Mr. Will.i.am, has been viewed as many as 40 million times online. Moderated by the video's Executive Producer and former Rock The Vote Chairman Fred Goldring, the panel also featured Chris Kelly, Head of Global Public Policy at Facebook; Marc Morgensen, Executive Director of Declare Yourself; and Max Bernstein, Political Director of CommonSense NMS.
The idea of the viral video, especially one impacting a political campaign, is a new one: Bernstein said he considers Virginia Senator George Allen's infamous "Macaca" blunder to be the first real viral political hit, a video that sent Allen's reelection campaign reeling (he eventually lost to Jim Webb) and pretty much ended his political career. But that couldn't have happened in 2000, or even in 2004.
We tend to forget, in our current 24/7 online bubble, that the technology that makes all this possible wasn't even popularized until 2005, when Youtube launched.
Their discussion tried to narrow down exactly why some viral videos make it big and why some videos, even those starring major celebrities, might fail to catch fire. "People want to be moved," said Morgensen. "People like videos that are funny, that are shocking, that are sexy."
As if to prove his "sexy" point, Morgensen played a new 15-second video spot from Declare Yourself, starring High School Musical's Zac Efron and urging people to vote in the November election. While Morgensen said the video has spread quickly online over the last few days, whether the people who actually watch Zac's urgings (and act on them) are even old enough to vote is a legitimate question without a real answer.
Despite producing a video stacked with stars like Scarlett Johansson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Herbie Hancock, Will.i.am downplayed the celebrity aspect of viral videos. "Celebrity doesn't mean anything," he said, despite the evidence offered by the packed crowd. But he emphasized, "It's not how are we are going to find the youth, it's how is the youth going to find us."
He suggested the best videos are "batonable," easily passed from one person to the next, and should open up a dialogue. Goldring said that the online discussions about the "Yes We Can" video drew in people from all ideological backgrounds, even Republicans, and brought people over to Obama's side without ever explicitly saying so.
The "Yes We Can" video also inspired a hundreds of related videos, putting a new spin on Will.i.am's original vision. They mocked it, they supported it, they added to it; it was, in essence, an online video-creation conversation.
Kelly put the reason for a video's popularity most simply: "The core of this is authenticity and trust." And Will.i.am believes all the performers in his video truly were moved by Obama's speech and the public saw that emotion and responded to it.
The question of how to turn a popular video into voter results is still a pressing one. Morgensen believes providing an easy link can be a good way of galvanizing people. Will.i.am thinks we need to go beyond simply watching a video, and suggested a form of peer pressure on Facebook and Myspace, showing who voted and who didn't. The social pressure might just inspire higher turnout.
Could a video like "Yes We Can" ever emerge from an official campaign, which usually specialize in staged events and pandering to audiences? The whole panel agreed: not a chance. The "sausage factory" of official campaigns, according to Goldring, would never allow such a creative work. Yet Bernstein was quick to point out that Hillary Clinton's primary campaign and John McCain's current presidential campaign both produced a number of viral hits, creating negative ads that work just as well online as on TV.
But has viral video changed campaigning forever? Possibly. The panelists said in the future, that people will be elected younger, having leveled the playing field with the richer, more established candidates with their ability to organize online and create trustworthy communities around their followers.
But Will.i.am was careful to remind the audience that, "This isn't the first time people have expressed themselves." This is just a new medium for that expression, and it's just getting started. And in the future, the content will just flow from phone to phone, and person to person, far more easily than we can even imagine.
Goldring mused on the "Macaca" effect: how today's young people have put up embarrassing photos and information online and in the future, if they ever run for office, will have to defend themselves over these materials. Kelly thinks, however, that people will be more forgiving with gaffes as time goes on.
The discussion briefly segued into the issue of Net Neutrality, and Bernstein offered this one sensible critique: "Net neutrality shouldn't be called net neutrality." He believes the issue won't gain any traction with the American public until Democrats refer to it by some term a little less clinical, along the lines of how the Republicans reframed the estate tax as "the death tax."
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