“Is Austin Hall here?” Steve Grove asked, looking for Carleton’s very own YouTube celebrity in the crowd gathered at Skinner Chapel, “I’d really love to meet him.”
Head of News and Politics at YouTube and a Northfield native, Grove returned home on October 26 to deliver convocation at Carleton. In his speech, “How the Internet is Changing Democracy,” Grove looked at the rapidly growing influence that the Internet is having on both voters and political candidates. Grove’s most notable accomplishment has been the launch of You Choose ’08, a platform that gives presidential candidates the opportunity to inform voters about their campaigns through videos.
Quite different from the open-to-all format of YouTube, presidential candidates create their own You Choose ’08 channels and control everything connected with the site, including the information, comments, and links. “It is their very own island of information on YouTube,” Grove said.
The development of a political hub within YouTube is an important step in the growth of the website as a source of information as well as entertainment. In its short history, the reputation of YouTube has not been one of political debate and voter education. As Grove said, “most people just think of YouTube as a funny place where dogs ride skateboards.”
Yet with the development of You Choose ’08, YouTube could become a forum for widespread education and serious political discussion. “The town halls of yesteryear are now on the internet,” Grove said. “Information is now in the hands of more people than ever before.”
The rapid growth of You Choose ’08 has been encouraging for Grove and others at YouTube. Already, sixteen presidential candidates have created official You Choose ’08 channels, eight for both the Democratic and Republican parties. “The presidential candidatures came on to YouTube quite quickly,” Grove said.
Yet because there has not been an election since the formation of You Choose ’08, it is not clear whether the information provided by the candidates through their channels has had a significant impact on potential voters.
YouTube only collects data on how many times a video is clicked on; it does not record whether the entire video is watched or not. There is also no way of gauging if viewers are truly paying attention to the issues that the candidates present and seeking more information. It could be that You Choose ’08 simply “makes voters more aware of candidates on a superficial level,” Professor Michael Griffin, Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, said.
The cursory education that You Choose ’08 supplies will most likely have the greatest impact on young voters, those individuals that often have the least cemented political views. Media outlets such as You Choose ’08 are “trying to reach younger people who are not as politically committed,” Professor Griffin said, “rather than older voters who are not easily going to change their minds.”
One unique characteristic of the information presented on YouTube is that it is subject to what Grove called “the meritocracy of the internet.” Unlike newspapers or television newscasts, there are no editors that choose what videos appear on YouTube or more significantly, which ones receive the most attention. Instead, “it entirely depends on viewers; what rises to the top is what is viewed the most,” said Grove.
As a result of this system, there is no way to judge if the videos that receive the most recognition on YouTube and You Choose ’08 are those with the most value and talent. As Professor Griffin said, “it is just like the popularity contest that drives other media… it is questionable whether popularity on YouTube reflects real merits.”
The effectiveness and impact of You Choose ’08 will only be known after the elections in 2008. Grove hopes that after this initial group of presidential candidates, You Choose will become a place for state and city government candidates as well as continuing national coverage. As Grove said, “these days, you can’t not be on YouTube.”