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The politics of videos and leaders

The YouTube phenomenon is keeping leaders in the West on their toes and is also fast becoming a platform that gives people a voice, writes Rahul Sharma.

delhi Updated: Jul 29, 2007 03:42 IST
Rahul Sharma

Last week YouTube changed a few ground rules in the US presidential campaign. Democrat candidates – including top runners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – faced questions from ordinary Americans, giving political debate a completely different meaning in the age of new media. It also clearly showed how the Internet had become an intrinsic part of the political process.

The debate, telecast live by CNN, saw candidates trying out a new medium to reach their voters while answering some silly and some not-so-silly questions chosen from among about 3,000 submissions — from geeky youth to Midwest farmers keen to make up their minds 15 months before they vote.

The debate may not have been the most watched, but it did attract about 2.6 million viewers, the biggest chunk from among those between the age of 18 and 34. I would have really liked to watch a verbal duel between Pratibha Patil and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat on YouTube.

What would the two of them have had to say to questions put to them by farmers from Vidharbha and college kids with pierced lips and belly buttons?

Mercifully, there is little for presidential candidates in India to debate.

David Shenk spoke of information overload in his book Data Smog that hit the stands in 1997 just as emails were creeping into homes and the Internet was turning into more than a platform for a mere few to communicate.

"Something marvelous has been happening to humankind," he wrote. "Information is moving faster and becoming more plentiful, and people everywhere are benefiting from this change. But there's a surprising postscript to this story. When it comes to information, it turns out that one can have too much of a good thing."

Ten years later, writing in the latest issue of the Slate magazine, Shenk says that rereading the book was gratifying and humbling; that the premise still held and “thankfully no longer requires convincing: In our work, home, and social lives, we are saturated with data and stimulus. While our grandparents were limited by access to information and speed of communication, we are restricted largely by our ability to wade through it all.”

Given that there is so much on the Internet why would we want to go to YouTube?

It’s largely because this website is as much about political debates as it is our way of life. It is about our past as it is about the present.

So while we may watch trailers of the latest films and videos of new songs being premiered on YouTube, there is a lot of historical footage that people from around the world have uploaded on the site.

More importantly, the website is also fast becoming a platform that gives citizens a voice.

Key in UniworldCity Woes in the search bar and watch the story of a poorly constructed apartment block unfold (http://youtube.com/watch?v=jjDtJjA96Dg). It is not journalism as we have traditionally known. Websites such as YouTube have given a powerful voice to people to express their unhappiness over issues that matter.

The residents of the condominium in Gurgaon complained about broken swings and a swimming pool without water for months, but eventually it took one brave resident to post a 9 minutes 23 second clip on the website for the builder to get into action.

Shenk frets in his Slate article about his biggest miss in the book. “I used to think of our information world in relatively black-and-white terms, with savvy information professionals on one side and wide-eyed, naive information consumers on the other. But the many great blogs out there have proven me wrong.”