Constructing Authenticity

Jose Antonio Vargas has an interesting Washington Post article suggesting that various presidential candidates have struggled to adapt to the medium of web video. Vargas notes that John Edwards’s most popular video, his announcement that he is running for president, has only been viewed 116,000 times, a few thousand less views than the satirical “John Edwards Feeling Pretty.” Vargas cites James Kotecki, a Georgetown University student and YouTube mini-celebrity (Dennis Kucinich even responds to Kotecki in one of his videos), who speculates that the campaign videos are falling flat because the candidates do not understand the medium, that their videos lack the irreverence and “authenticity” inherent to (or at least popular in) the web video form. Others who have thought quite a bit about web video, including Jeff Jarvis and Micah Sifry echo the desire for what Sifry calls “that rare, unscripted, revealing moment.”

My use of scare quotes indicates my own skepticism regarding the concept of authenticity when it comes to presidential politics, and this probably has to do with how authenticity itself is a construction, a carefully crafted strategy to define the candidate in a specific way.Jarvis and Sifry both cite the example of a video featuring conservative British politician David Cameron washing dishes, his child crying in the background, as an authentic or “unscripted” moment. While there are unscripted elements, especially Cameron’s interaction with his child, it seems significant that authenticity is explicitly tied to domesticity, to the family home. I’m not faulting the video at all (In fact it’s pretty interesting and better than a number of similar videos); I’m just skeptical about how the video establishes itself as conveying something authentic about the candidate, or more generally, what we’re talking about when we use the word “authenticity” in the first place.

Still, it’s an interesting argument, but I think the lack of viewership may also reflect a lack of interest in an election that is still twenty months away (even the Iowa caucuses are months away). It also points to the fairly narrow line that candidates will have to navigate, especially given that what happens on YouTube won’t necessarily stay there. I’m still convinced that the more interesting uses of web video will not be by the campaigns themselves but by the political junkies and others who are watching and participating in the process in new ways.

4 Comments »

  1. David de Ugarte Said,

    March 18, 2007 @ 6:25 am

    Maybe, if you are interested in the links between web 2.0 tecnologies and presidentical race, http://www.wannabepresidents.com/ would be interesting to you.

    Is made in 20 minutes by two persons with http://www.feevy.com an Spanish service.

  2. Chuck Said,

    March 18, 2007 @ 11:45 am

    Thanks, I’ll check it out when I get a chance. Here’s a direct link.

  3. Matt Said,

    March 21, 2007 @ 2:03 am

    I’ve been thinking about this post a bit, Chuck, and while I agree with you that its worthwhile to think about the construction of authenticity in these videos, I don’t think that “authenticity” itself is what really leads a video to be popular on YouTube.

    I’d say, instead, that — unless the video contains something controversial, like a “Maccacca” moment — political videos will have to engage us as entertainment in order to succeed. And, like most entertainment these days, they’ll have to adopt an ironic, sarcastic tone — while still providing a heartwarming message in the end.

    Perhaps it’s hard to imagine that happening on a national level, but I’ve just seen a YouTube video for a City Council candidate here in Philly that fits the bill exactly. Chuck, I give you: The Anastasio Team.

  4. Chuck Said,

    March 21, 2007 @ 8:53 am

    The video is very funny–a really creative way to communicate Anastasio’s commitment to public service. You’re right to suggest that “authenticity” itself isn’t necessarily what draws people to YouTube vids (and I should have stated that more directly in my original post).

    I do think that irreverence and controversy tend to attract audiences, as the cable news discussion of the Hilary 1984 advertisement illustrates.

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