Political Video: The Aftermath

After every election, there is an inevitable, and invariably oversimplified, period of reckoning where politicians, pundits, and other political observers attempt to make sense of  What Just Happened.  Too often, there is a tendency to assume that the victorious party, in the case the Democrats, did everything right, while the other party’s strategies were completely flawed, and given the high visibility of web video during the 2008 election, one of the narratives that has emerged is that Democrats and their supporters understood the power of web video much better than their opponents.  In this context, I think this recent post by Clay Shirky on BoingBoing, in which he highlights an example of a successful and widely circulated pro-McCain video, is especially important.

There are a number of valuable points that Shirky raises here.  First, the “Dear Mr. Obama” video is pretty powerful in its simplicity, even while it might seem cheaply manipulative to anti-war viewers.  In the video, an Iraq War vet irectly addresses the camera and talks about the sacrifices he has made while adding that Obama’s reference to the war as a “mistake” cheapens that sacrifice.  An American flag stands nearby, on the edge of the frame, seemingly out of context for some viewers, given that the video is shot at the edge of a forest.    The video ends with the vet walking away from the camera, his artificial leg becoming visible as he moves out of frame, the sounds of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” welling up in the background.  These codes may seem trite for some viewers, but for others, they are, in fact, deeply meaningful.

Second, although the video has been viewed well over 13 million times on YouTube alone, I’ll admit that I was relatively unfamiliar with it, even while I have been paying careful attention to the use of web video during the campaign.  Shirky is right to emphasize the role of “homophilious forwarding” in shaping how the video circulates and how it is received.  People share videos with others who have similar interests and tastes.  That’s one of the reasons why the will.i.am video (among others) was so successful.  People who shared musical and popular culture tatses embraced the affect of the video, while others were left out.  This was dramatized powerfully for me this fall when I showed the will.i.am video in class and one of my non-traditional students–a factory worker who came to campus directly from his night shift job at a Firestone plant–had an almost visceral negative reaction to it, with the video serving to solidify his support for the more explicitly pragmatic Hillary Clinton.  But the more crucial point made by Shirky is that the video succeeded in circulating among conservative groups who generally embraced it while being virtually ignored by Democrats (this is anecdotal, but I don’t recall seeing the video mentioned on the liberal blogs I read way too obsessively over the last year).

That being said, I’m not sure that this video in particular will serve as the “template” for Republican web videos in 2010, as Shirky predicts.  He is likely correct in concluding that the Repblicans will gain a few seats in 2010.  With Democrats holding huge majorities in both the House and Senate, chances are high that Republicans will cut into that advantage, if past precedent is any indicator.  And while the Iraq War may be off the table in 2010, the video’s use of personal sincerity and and its use of patriotic tropes will continue to be effective, although my guess is that the narratives of 2010 will revolve primarily around economic issues (note the already existing groundwork depicting Obama as a socialist).  But I think the most successful videos were the ones that broke through the clutter, at least to some extent, by appealing to the cable news broadcasters’ obsessions with controversy (ObamaGirl, for example, although I think it’s wrong to se ObamaGirl as a sincere pro-Obama video) and celebrity (the will.iam videos).  Even while these videos may have provoked negative responses among conservatives, they were able to escape the enclosed blog circles where most videos do their work into the wider public spaces of cable and network news.

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