Iowa was an incredibly fun experience, it was the first time I’d been paid to be a journalist. At the end of the fair I went on the rollercoaster because I figured what’s a fair without a midway ride? The straw poll was very similar to the fair except that it was all about politics. It was the same kind of carnival atmosphere. For most people the food was free, the entertainment was free, so maybe even better than the fair. People dressed up in all sorts of costumes. Elvis. Political cats. It was a side of politics that I’d assumed was out there but had never seen myself. To go into that kind of target-rich environment, where there were so many visual things going on, so many people to talk to, it was a great experience. I uploaded 22 videos over the course of two days.
I had this Web cam and I said, ‘Why not start posting videos?’ It seemed like a fun thing to do. Maybe people will actually care what I have to say. It seems like people watch a lot of inane things that are posted, so why not give it a go? My favorite subject since about seventh grade has always been politics.
The first couple of videos that I made were about the top tier presidential candidates, as determined by the mainstream media. And I realized that they were boring. I was mimicking what the mainstream media was doing.
It’s not like I originally got a very large response from the YouTube community for that. I built my audience slowly until I got featured on the homepage. Then it took off. I thought this is something that no one else is talking about. It’s a niche for me to fill. I had something to say, people were interested in hearing it, so I kept saying it. … I tried a lot of different things. I was rapping in one. I used sock puppets to discuss the length of the presidential campaign season. Much later I began interviewing candidates.
Larry Craig’s Crappergate
The great thing is that no one can say they know more about campaigning on YouTube than me. It’s certainly possible they know as much or have a different opinion but since I basically started commenting from the beginning, I’m a “expert” in this niche. So it’s been fun. The Economist called me “probably the world’s foremost expert on YouTube videos posted by presidential candidates,” which is a ridiculous statement to make because it’s such a small niche. I think they were being a little tongue in cheek with that.
The pencil puppets really caught on. People really find that idea endearing.
In 11th grade, we had an activity where we were brainstorming ideas for small businesses. I came up with this idea for emergency cheese, which is a snack pack for adults that you carry around all day, maybe some crackers and spreadable cheese in it. The idea I had for a commercial was that you’d have a board meeting where everyone was talking about some knotty problem and suddenly someone junior stands up on a chair and says “Emergency Cheese!” Everyone pulls out the snack pack and the tension is instantly gone and they start dancing around to Jamaican music. This wasn’t necessarily the best idea for a business because I had no idea how to make cheese or how to get a factory to produce…. But I liked the name. I had a Web site for a while called Emergency Cheese where I wrote random musings and had pictures of different kinds of cheese that were characters like Party-Time Provolone or All-American American.
Ron Paul didn’t make any aesthetic comments about the dorm room but the idea that a congressman and presidential candidate would come to a college kid’s dorm room was pretty new. He and his press secretary didn’t really know what to expect. I know his press secretary had seen my stuff, and they don’t have a lot of money or a whole lot to lose. So why not do it. He was a very nice guy and came across as a very principled guy. He’s also very interesting because his views aren’t like that of a typical politician. He and Mike Gravel—who also came to my dorm room—were probably the two most interesting politicians to talk to because their views are so different from what you would typically hear a politician say. .. Other politicians I could pretty much predict what they’d say when I asked a question. Various people commented after that video went up that my dorm room was messy, so for the next video I cleaned it up a little.
No Tom Tancredo yet, surprisingly enough. I’ve heard from campaign sources that they’ve discussed doing an interview with me, but because I’m “just a blogger” it’s not worth their time, which is fascinating to me. If anyone needs the publicity, it’s someone like Tom Tancredo.
A Seaside Message for Mitt Romney
The first time I had contact with the media was during the Mark Foley scandal. I was a 2003 House page. I never knew Foley, was never abused, but I told that exact line to about 35 news outlets in a week. At the time I thought this media establishment is just ridiculous; it’s just an echo chamber. I can adhere directly to my talking points, and no one will even pressure me about it. I had hoped that the media would be more rigorous than that.
There was a discussion on mediaBistro.com about whether James Kotecki is a real journalist or not.
I’ve gone from being very skeptical about the media to seeing a lot more of it to now being part of it. It’s been a really interesting transition. I have a much more nuanced view of it. The way that the market is structured I realize why they ask the questions they do, why they feel like they have to ask the most obvious questions because most people are hearing these answers for the first time.
I don’t think YouTube replaces anything. It’s a good complement. Ron Paul does not usually do interviews in the mainstream media. And when they do interview him, they want to get to the basic facts in five minutes and move on. When I got him in my dorm room, I wanted to go a little deeper than that, talk about his philosophy, the Constitution, about his views in a 30-minute interview.
There are flaws in the media, but the fact that anyone can now do it online means that some of those flaws can be fixed or mitigated by citizen journalists.
The great thing about YouTube is that it’s a different kind of medium. The videos are short. You can choose to watch whatever you want whenever you want. If you don’t like a video after five seconds or fifty seconds, you can watch something else—there are probably 20 other videos right on that same page. So you have to hold people’s attention. Because it’s a smaller screen, the picture’s more grainy, it’s a much more casual medium. It’s more personal, and because most people on YouTube don’t create the highest quality stuff, politicians who want to interact with this medium don’t have to create TV quality stuff either. It’s often more effective if they just flip up a MacBook and start talking.
You have your own channel. Everyone else has their own channel. People say politicians are losing control to YouTube. That’s true, but they also have total control over their own channel. They can respond to any video that they want, they can be as interactive as they want, they can post comments, rate other videos, and actually be involved in the community as opposed to television which is just a passive medium.
In this election, everyone talks about social networking sites, like MySpace and Facebook and YouTube. Well I think social networking sites are great—you’re reaching the kids—but every piece of information on those sites is something you can likely find on a candidate’s web page. If I send a MySpace message to Barack Obama, I can pretty sure that a staffer is getting back to me. With video, you can have different content that’s never been around before, more casual, and if I send a message to Dennis Kucinich—and this actually happened—and Dennis Kucinich gets back to me, a staffer can’t impersonate him.
For now, it’s still a novelty. Dennis Kucinich does it a lot. Tancredo does something called “Tancredo’s Take,” and Bill Richardson now has a feature on his Web site called “Ask Bill” where he takes questions and answers them on YouTube. I hope we see more of that. Most candidates have done one of two interesting things on YouTube, but I don’t think anyone has the full package yet.
Maybe it’s because no politicians have grown up with YouTube and they’re firmly entrenched—the way that you should act on YouTube is different than the way you should on TV. It’s more goofy, more casual, more like a regular human being.
I’m very open to the idea that there’s a Web site or a tool out there that’s just on the verge of national prominence that could really shape the election.
The transformative power of YouTube still isn’t known yet.
The kind of politicians we see who really love the Internet—well they use the internet but don’t really understand it. Ron Paul is the most popular guy on the Internet right now. I get the impression that he’s not that heavy of a Internet user himself. It’s his supporters who are doing it, and not even coordinated by the campaign. Eventually we’re going to see politicians who actually do get the technology side of it, because if they don’t they won’t know what’s going on. Eventually it has to bleed over into the politicians themselves and not just their campaign strategists.
Hillary Clinton was the only candidate who responded to the YouTube questioners by name. Everyone else took the questions as if it was any other moderator asking it. Often they didn’t address the personal side of the question.
I do vote, and I do have opinions. If and when my political beliefs come out, I’m not ashamed of them.
It’s good for the country for people to feel like they can reach out to their leaders.