In a very special design mind event at NYU last week, we featured Arun Chaudhary, who is traveling with the Obama campaign as director of video field production. The conversation between him and Fast Company senior writer Ellen McGirt brought forth some surprising insights into the emergence of online video (and new media in general) as a crucial component of political campaigning.
Although Chaudhary is a NYU film school graduate, the venue didn't provide a home court advantage. The audience -- a cross-section of New York's media community -- was attentive but critical. As became clear in the ensuing Q&A session, the openness that has become such hallmark of the Obama campaign doesn't go far enough for some of the attendees. A representative from RemixAmerica.org -- a project that invites users to mash up the whole content library of America's history of politics (speeches, debates, campaign ads, etc.) -- argued that while masterfully utilizing the "engagement" potential of social media the campaign would ultimately fall short of walking the walk, shying away from including users in (co-)creating content and losing message control. In Obama's media universe, the "clickocracy" (The Washington Post) remains a meritocracy: Not "everybody is a media outlet" (Clay Shirky). But then again, why would the campaign open the flood gates for mash-ups when YouTube is already over-populated with them? Just search for Obama's recent Berlin speech and you'll see what I mean.
The fact that Chaudhary admitted that it's still a long way towards a campaign created "by the people for the people" ("we are just scratching the surface of this") supported the notion of openness more than revealing the lack thereof as a weakness (I wrote a while ago that one of the Obama brand's magic formulas is that it can turn weaknesses into strengths). Chaudhary was as genuine, smart, and eloquent as the candidate himself and not overly prepped with talking points for this speaking gig. The campaign didn't seem too concerned and controlling. If this implicit trust in their staff members as spokespeople was "by design," then Obama's spin doctors must really be exceptionally smart.
The other key takeaways of the evening were on demographics and viewing behavior. According to Chaudhary, the average viewer of videos on BarackObama.com and YouTube.BarackObama.com is 45-55 years old (not the pups you would expect in the heydays of the YouTube generation). Furthermore, and maybe even more surprising, those viewers prefer long-form content over the snippets everyone nowadays hails as the future of media. June Cohen, Executive Producer of TED.com, confirmed Chaudhary's stats by referring to her own TED Talks series -- a big online hit despite (or because of!) the typical running time of 30-45 min.
So, substance over style? Well, style matters, too. It is remarkable how Chaudhary's Obama videos are embracing a Jon Stewart-esque irony (as in "sovereign distance to subject"), using the instruments of satire and spoof (without ever drifting into caricature) to validate and enhance the intended message. Chaudhary not only deconstructs the opponent's videos (as he did with a fast response to Clinton's fear-mongering "3:00 AM" ad, starring the exact same girl that Clinton had used for her clip -- revealing her as an all-grown-up and fearless Obama supporter) but also his own. By doing so, he preempts any scrutiny of the medium's propagandistic intentions -- almost like clearing the air before you breathe.
This is a major difference to the use of online video in previous campaigns and only possible since video has become such a widely accepted part of mainstream media consumption. Precisely because everyone is now used to the authenticity of amateur videos on YouTube, and professional marketers have begun to mimic it for their own purposes, Chaudhary can make fun of it (this is, by the way, as Lee Siegel pointed out in the New York Times, the exact reason why the New Yorker's Obama cover did not work as a satire: the caricatured presumption was simply not part of US mainstream). Carefully curating Obama's not-so-funny jokes and stand-offish moments, Chaudhary's videos provide evidence that this candidate is real. The very questioning of authenticity verifies the authenticity. It's early nouvelle vague applied to new media: what you see is not what you get; it is already the reflection thereof. It's film-making that is fully aware of its persuasive power and thus carefully calibrates its messages.
It will be interesting to see whether Obama (and Chaudhary) can maintain this level of meta, irony, and self-deprecation once the candidate is in the White House. Campaigning by video is one thing, governing by video is another. When the campaign is over, Obama will have more than 700,000 friends on his Facebook page and still millions of eyeballs to his web sites. What will he do with them? Chaudhary hinted at the possibilities of "fireside video chats" and other public video forums. We shall see.
I will post a full-length video of the event later this week. In the meantime, enjoy some highlights:
...and some media and blog coverage:
Silicon Alley Insider: Obama's Video Guru Speaks: How We Owned the YouTube Primary, re-posted on CNET: Obama’s Web Video Strategy Revealed and The Huffington Post
TechPresident: Obama & Politics 2.0 Documenting History in Real Time
Mediabistro FishBowlNY: Live Twitter Stream from the design mind event
Disruptology: Everything You Know About Viral Video is Wrong
The Lessnau Lounge: Twitter Tweets about Obama as of July 16, 2008
Some random thoughts on design: Politics 2.0 and the Thirst for Content