The tech was ready. But were the Tweeters?
[Al Gore at Current TV-Twitter Reception before Hack the Debate event. More event photos here.]
I had the honor of shaking Al Gore's hand at "Hack the Debates" Friday night, a pioneering joint project of Current TV and Twitter. Gore, along with Joel Hyatt, the former TV pop lawyer are co-founders of Current, a project intended to "democratize television, as Gore put it in his brief remarks. Visitors got to take a brief tour of the extremely digitized brick-and-wood Current TV facility across from ATT Park where the Giants were getting slammed about as badly as polls show McCain was during the debate.
The most interesting part of the tour for me was a bank of perhaps 20 computers, being operated by Adobe people. Adobe provided some of the complex and unproven technology used to hack the debate. Their job was to filter and select Tweeter comments and get "a balanced selection" of them posted onscreen. I had many questions I wanted to ask about this crucial human component, but this was a quickie tour and their was little time to drill down. I'll get back to this part in a minute.
There have already been a few reports on Hack the Debate. I thought Pete Cashmore's Mashable piece was the best I've read. I also thought Sarah Lai Stirland's report in Wired.com was pretty much on spot as well. I sat between Sarah and my old friend Tara Hunt in a private room rented by Current for a small group of mostly press & bloggers. We watched the debate on two large flat panel monitors, while tweeting and munching on Mexican finger food and enjoying free adult beverages.
I share all these details to point out that there was a lot of distraction going on. People moving around, and chatting and joking while the next president of the United States debated with the first runner up. I have watched nearly every presidential debate since JFK first took on Richard Nixon. I have missed very few of them and in one case, my vote was changed by what I saw.
But there has always been the issue of who gets to ask the questions -- a panel of broadcast journalists, the League of Women Voters, a hall filled with screen and selected voters? Until recently, the options were very limited. The questions and/or comments would come from a few carefully selected people and not by the millions who were there to watch and then have their say on election day.
[Fun & Distraction during presidential debate]
So, the emergence of Current TV, and Gore's vision of democratizing television--the most top down of all media, to me is significant and promising. It offers the appearance of a way to let, we the people talk to them the candidates. I wrote about my enthusiasm for this project less than a week ago.
My experience with Hack the Debate, is that a small step for television democratization was indeed taken. But it was no giant leap. First, the technology was nearly flawless from a viewer perspective. The only hiccups apparent while view were small and brief. All members of the tech team have proven the concept and that was probably the night's most important challenge.
The problem I felt was in the overall low quality of the comments I saw dart across the screen. Many were cheap shots from anonymous posters. A great portion of them were cheerleading for the candidate of choice. Extremely few, from my perspective enhanced the conversation being held by the candidates. Very few comments checked the facts, the nuances and misleading statements of the contenders. I doubt that comments on the ugliness of John McCain's necktie will change any undecided voter's mind. If there was wisdom in the crowd, it seemed to remain well-hidden.
This was supposed to be about democratization. It appeared more like anarchy to me.
Don't get me wrong. Hack the Debate was a great proof of concept. I am sure the subsequent three debates will each be refined from Friday's experience. But I think it will take four more years to start to nail this down.
What needs to be done. My first thought feels treasonous to most everything that I have said and written about social media, I think that the audience participation needs to be filtered. I think the number of people commenting needs to be a true cross sampling of the American people and I think the rest of us need to do what we have usually done at the debates: watch and listen.
Every idea I have is difficult and sound unrealistic. But maybe it won't be so unrealistic a few years hence. Current TV first of all needs to be an active participant in the debate rather than a hacker. The word alone scares mainstream voters. Here's how I thing it can work
- Limit the people who can Comment to 2000 or 10,000 proportionally representing the American voting population. Perhaps collaborate with a tried and true pollster like Gallup in the selection.
- Refine the selection process. A bank of people filtering in real time are just trying to weed out obscenity and really scary comments. There is no time to search for thoughtful comments and then balance the numbers from each viewpoint. This to me was the weakest point in the process Friday night. It will be hard to fix, but it needs to be fixed. It is extremely difficult to pull pithy comments from the flood of drivel that was served up and then balance partisan perspective.
- Let Tweeters contribute some questions. This require cooperation with the debate producers and both candidates, but that will be a nice big stride toward democratization.
- Only allow people who use their real names and are registered voters to participate.
- Continue the conversation. When the debate was over, have some sort of moderator--Al Gore would be nice. I'd settle for Ariana Huffington or someone more neutral perhaps. Or perhaps strong spokepeople from all perspectives. Let them follow the debate and continue the conversation with voters.
I think the framework exists for a powerful new dynamic in the way we select a president. I think Current and Twitter have the chance to give America more than a quality of commentary that emulates passing notes in a sixth grade class.