Tuned In

YouTube: Dumbing Us Down or Smartening Us Up?

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As of 9 this morning, the number-one most-watched video of the day on YouTube has been Barack Obama’s speech on race, which at that point had generated just about a million views in less than 24 hours. Let me rephrase that. Nearly a million views for a 37-minute political speech not involving a woman singing in hot pants:

You may suspect that I’m another journalist seizing on an opportunity to swoon over Obama, and I can’t blame you, given the over-the-top hosannas of the past day. (Last night on Hardball, Chris Matthews called the speech the greatest speech on race in America ever, and unless I missed something, he didn’t make an exception for Dr. Martin Luther King.) But actually, I want to seize on the opportunity to swoon over YouTube.

Since the 2006 midterms, there’s been a lot of talk in the media about “the YouTube election” and what it means for politics. Some of the analysis has been positive—the new medium puts power in individual voters’ hands, etc. But, as with any electronic medium, there’s also been a lot of handwringing: worries that YouTube is too focused on gotcha! moments, that it reduces discourse to snippets and decontextualized soundbites, that it’s a factor in the general shrinkage of the national attention span.

But the Obama speech shows that, sometimes at least, YouTube (and online media generally) can have just the opposite effect. Not to be a broken record, but dude: 37 minutes of one guy talking, free of analysis or professional gasbags yelling at each other.

In mainstream media—and to be fair, it’s true of print as well as TV—there is a condescending, self-fulfilling assumption that you don’t want to spend a lot of time doing anything. You want the highlights, the gist, the bullet points. Because long = boring! KTHXBAI! But over the last day, we’ve seen again that there’s a great appetite for just the opposite: disintermediated primary-source material, actively sought out by people who didn’t have to do so.

Now to be fair, I have no idea how many of those million watched the whole speech and how many watched a few seconds. I have no idea how many were committed Obamaphiles or Obamaphobes who wanted nothing more than to reconfirm their already-held beliefs. And a million viewers is still a fraction of even Katie Couric’s newscast. None of this means that Obama’s speech did or didn’t help him politically–that depends who heard it, and what they heard in it.

But it’s still pretty remarkable. Given that online video is an opt-in medium, that one million doesn’t mean people who happened to have YouTube on in the background while they made dinner or happened to catch the video because it was on after Oprah. In other words, it was a million motivated viewers, and as political campaigns and pay-cable networks alike know, sometimes a smaller number of more committed viewers matter as much as a larger number of ambivalent ones. It was people seeking out for themselves the kind of context, complicated argument and lengthy discourse that commercial media assumes that they will go out of their way to avoid.

One thing that was distinctive about Obama’s speech was that, unlike most contemporary political speeches, it was essentially an essay, not a laundry list. It was excerptable, but it really asked to be heard in full—it developed a long, fluid argument, each part of which reflected on the next. Agree or disagree with it, it was simply rhetorically different from most political speech today: there was something almost 19th-century about its assumption that enough people would listen, and listen long. Yesterday, writing about the speech, I said that the message of the whole speech might be beside the point, since so many people would experience it only in snippets. But it turns out that plenty of people want to hear the whole thing for themselves.

To old-media types, expecting people to have the patience to seek out a 37-minute speech is the opposite of what they’d expect from a “YouTube candidate.” But really it makes perfect sense. Online video can, and usually does, lend itself to shorter-form work, but that’s only part of the difference between Web media and old media. Another difference is that the people expect the Web to allow them to drill deep into subjects they really care about. It recognizes that it must grab people’s attention, yes; but it also does not patronizingly assume that that attention span is getting ever shorter. It doesn’t assume its audience is stupid; that’s what the commercial media are for.

There may be a lesson in this for those still in old media, both print and TV. But I don’t know if we have the attention span to get the message.