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The missing ingredient from hyperwired debates: the feedback loop

The 2012 Presidential debates show how far convergence has come and how far we have yet to go.

PodiumWhat a difference a season makes. A few months after widespread online frustration with a tape-delayed Summer Olympics, the 2012 Presidential debates will feature the most online livestreams and wired, up-to-the-second digital coverage in history.

Given the pace of technological change, it’s inevitable that each election season will bring with it new “firsts,” as candidates and campaigns set precedents by trying new approaches and platforms. This election has been no different: the Romney and Obama campaigns have been experimenting with mobile applications, social media, live online video and big data all year.

Tonight, one of the biggest moments in the presidential campaign to date is upon us and there are several new digital precedents to acknowledge.

The biggest tech news is that YouTube, in a partnership with ABC, will stream the debates online for the first time. The stream will be on YouTube’s politics channel, and it will be embeddable.

With more and more livestreamed sports events, concerts and now debates available online, tuning in to what’s happening no longer means passively “watching TV.” The number of other ways people can tune in online in 2012 has skyrocketed, as you can see in GigaOm’s post listing debate livestreams or Mashable’s ways to watch the debates online.

This year, in fact, the biggest challenge people will have will not be finding an online alternative to broadcast or cable news but deciding which one to watch.

If you’re low on bandwidth or have a mobile device, NPR will stream the audio from the debate online and to its mobile apps. If you’re a Spanish speaker, Univision will stream the debates on YouTube with real-time translation.

The New York Times, Politico and Wall Street Journal are both livestreaming the debates at their websites or through their apps, further eroding the line between broadcast, print and online media.

While the PBS News Hour and CSPAN’s debate hub are good options, my preference is for the Sunlight Foundation’s award-winning Sunlight Live liveblog.

There are a couple of other notable firsts. The Huffington Post will deploy its HuffPost Live platform for the first time, pulling more viewers directly into participatory coverage online.

For those looking for a more… animated approach, the Guardian and Tumblr will ‘live GIF’ the presidential debates.

Microsoft is livestreaming the debates through the XBox, giving gamers an opportunity to weigh in on what they see through their Xboxes. They’ll be polled through the Xbox console during the debate, which will provide more real-time data from a youthful demographic that, according to StrategyOne, still has many voters who are not firmly committed.

Social politics

The political news cycle has long since moved from the morning papers and the nightly news to real-time coverage of events. In past years, the post-debate spin by campaigns and pundits shaped public opinion. This year, direct access to online video and to the reaction of friends, family, colleagues and media through the social web means that the spin will begin as soon as any quip, policy position or rebuttal is delivered in the debate.

Beyond real-time commentary, social media will provide useful data for the campaigns to analyze. While there won’t be a “do over,” seeing what resonated directly with the public will help the campaigns tune their messages for the next debates.

Tonight, when I go on Al Jazeera’s special debate night coverage at The Stream, I’ll be looking at a number of factors. I expect the #DenverDebate and #debates hashtags to be moving too fast to follow, so I’ll be looking at which tweets are being amplified and what we can see on Twitter’s new #debates page, what images are popping online, which links are popular, how Facebook and Google+ are reacting, and what people are searching for on Google.com.

This is quite likely to be the most social political event ever, surpassing either of the 2012 political conventions or the State of the Union address. When I watch online, I’ll be looking for what resonated with the public, not just what the campaigns are saying — although that will factor into my analysis. The @MittRomney account tweets 1-2 times a day. Will they tweet more? Will @BarackObama’s 19 million followers be engaged? How much and how often will they update Facebook, and to what effect?

Will they live tweet open statements with links to policies? Will they link to rebuttals or fact checks in the media? Will they push people to go register or comment or share? Will they echo applause lines or attack lines? In a larger sense, will the campaigns act social, themselves? Will they reshare the people’s posts about them on social platforms or keep broadcasting?

We’ll know answers to all of these questions in a few hours.

Fact-checking in real-time

Continuing a trend from the primary season, real-time fact-checking will play a role in the debate. The difference in this historic moment is it will be the pace of it and the number of players.

As Nick Judd highlighted at techPresident, the campaign response is going to be all about mobile. Both campaigns will be trying their hands at fact checking, using new adaptive microsites at barackobama.com/debate and debates.mittromney.com, dedicated Twitter accounts at @TruthTeam2012 and and @RomneyResponse, and an associated subdomain and Tumblr.

Given the skin that campaigns have in the game, however, undecided or wavering voters are better off going with the Fourth Estate versions. Wired media organizations, like the newspapers streaming the debates I’ve listed above, will be using liveblogs and leveraging their digital readership to help fact check.

Notably, NPR senior social strategist Andy Carvin will be applying the same approach to fact checking during the debate as he has to covering the changes in the Middle East. To participate, follow @acarvin and use the #factcheck hashtag beginning at 8:30 ET.

It’s unclear whether debate moderator Jim Lehrer will tap into the fact-checking efforts online to push back on the candidates during the event. Then again, the wisdom of the crowds may be balanced by one man’s perspective. Given that he’s serving in that capacity for the 12th time, Lehrer possesses substantial experience of his own to draw upon in making his own decisions about when to press, challenge or revisit issues.

The rise of networked polities

In a larger sense, all of this interactivity falls fall short of the promise of networked politics in the Internet age. In the age of the Internet, television debates look antiquated.

When it comes to how much the people are directly involved with the presidential debates of 2012, as Micah Sifry argued earlier this week, little has changed from 2008:

“Google is going to offer some kind of interactive audience dial gadget for YouTube users, which could allow for real-time audience feedback — except it’s already clear none of that feedback is going to get anywhere near the actual debate itself. As best as I can tell, what the CPD [Commission on Presidential Debates] is doing is little more than what they did four years ago, except back then they partnered with Myspace on a site called MyDebates.org that featured video streaming, on-demand playback and archival material. Oh, but this time the partner sites will include a dynamic counter showing how many people have ‘shared their voice’.”

While everyone who has access to the Internet will be able to use multiple screens to watch, read and participate in the conversation around the debates, the public isn’t going to be directly involved in the debate. That’s a missed opportunity that won’t be revisited until the 2016 campaign.

By then, it will be an even more wired political landscape. While many politicians are still delegating the direct use of social media use to staffers, in late 2012 it ill behooves any office to be seen as technically backward and stay off them entirely.

In the years ahead, open government advocates will push politicians to use the Internet to explain their votes, not just broadcast political attacks or campaign events. After all, the United States is a constitutional republic. Executives and Congressmen are obligated to listen to the people they represent. The existing ecosystem of social media platforms may give politicians new tools to interact directly with their constituents but they’re still relatively crude.

Yes, the next generation of social media data analytics will give politicians a dashboard of what their constituents think about their positions. It’s the next generation of polling. In the years to come, however, I’m optimistic that we’re going to see much better use of the Internet to hold politicians accountable for their campaign positions and subsequent votes.

Early experiments in creating an “OKCupid for elections” will evolve. Expect sophisticated choice engines that use social and legislative data to tell voters not only whether candidates share their positions but whether they actually voted or acted upon them. Over time, opposition candidates will be able to use that accumulated data in their campaign platforms and during debates. If a member of Congress or President doesn’t follow through with the wishes of the people, he or she will have to explain why. That will be a debate worth having.

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