Web 2.0, CNN, and the Bizzaro-Clones

So I finally got around to watching the CNN’s Youtube Presidential Debates aired on Monday. If you were out of the loop — the basic idea was that the questions were provided by “viewers like you” through videos submitted on Youtube. A press release from CNN cited it as “tak[ing] the bold step of embracing the ever-increasing role of the Internet in politics.”

As much as I love Anderson Cooper’s virgin snowy white hair, there’s the obvious comment that’s already been made by a number of prominent bloggers that this is just old media wrapped up new media clothing. CNN cherry-picked who got aired, and the questions were as softie as they wanted them to be. It’s obvious that CNN still hasn’t quite gotten what the “internet in politics” means for their role in the public sphere when they openly admit that “a small group led by Senior Vice President David Bohrmann” will be deciding “who makes the cut.” If they’re embracing it — it’s only because it still can fit into the traditional way of doing things — with media as ultimate arbitrator.

As implementing Web 2.0 comes increasingly into vogue (i.e. USAToday) I think we will increasingly need a heuristic to parse out the “good uses” from the “bad uses.” I’m not sure what that heuristic is, but I think this instance was a bad use. Granted, I think it’s great to get people into the habit of generating their own media, that much is awesome. Though I think the practice is twisted in a bad way when it re-affirms the principle that the gatekeepers of media bottlenecks have the right to decide who is “valuable” enough to get mass distribution. Plus, it tends to center attention on YouTube as a sole conduit of submitting video, which is also pretty problematic.

Although all this is an important point to be made, I think there’s actually, another more distinctively surreal popomo side to this — the fact the hosts of the show are now Bizzaro-clones.

Benkler’s Wealth of Networks has this great section which talks about how the economics of traditional mass televised media lends itself to a very particular formula of political discourse. As he states,

“The steady structuring of the media as professional, commercial, and one way over 150 years has led to a pattern whereby, when political debate is communicated, it is mostly communicated as performance. Someone represents a party or widely known opinion, and is juxtaposed with others who similarly represent alternative widely known views. These avatars of public opinion then enact a clash of opinion, orchestrated in order to leave the media neutral and free of blame, in the eyes of their viewers, for espousing an offensively partisan view” (p. 205)

In the traditional model for politics, the avatar is usually a single identifiable person for the “performance,” who is an identifiable character. He’s your Bill O’Reilly, your Michael Moore, your presidential candidate of choice. It’s the “conservative,” the “liberal.” You’re usually able to separate yourself from that character, the same way you’d do in a movie. At best, you say something like “I agree with him/her” or “I disagree with him/her.”

The CNN/YouTube Debates remix this idea, but keep the essential dynamic steady and as bland as it’s always been. News gets to keep its traditional role as appearing to be neutral and free of blame. This is a market force thing. I think at some point, it became manifestly obvious (with such personalized shows like Anderson Cooper 360 or The Edge) that newscasters were biased, so I think news companies had to find a new, more credible host to moderate an event like a presidential debate.

What they’ve done is introduced a new character, it’s called the “Public.” Unlike the characters of the past, it appears to be an entire crowd of people. And, better yet it’s supposed to be a mirror of us, the viewer. And hey look, we’re up there on the stage! And better yet, we’re hosting the show!

So what is this many-faced thing that we’re seeing on television nowadays — ourselves?

Undoubtedly it comes from us — people out there are creating video, presumably expressing their very real concerns. So it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck. But it’s filtered, so it ain’t no duck. But then again, the newscasters aren’t writing a script, this is real media. So what is it, a mashup? We all know the mire of philosophical tanglewood that gets us into.

Beyond the ownership question, there’s an even weirder side to this. The message that these events shout is Hey you out there, you’re the ones in charge! During the debates, Cooper seemed to merely facilitate to this abstract force, “you the viewer.” I mean, the way you see them approach it, it’s like him quaking before an Oracle. The set design is all glowing screens and moving lights. IT’S LIKE THE WHOLE STAGE IS PLUGGED INTO THE INTERNET.

The lights and the color scheme suggest, oh, I don’t know —

I think the news media has realized the ideal host. It’s essentially bulletproof. After all, how can you argue against yourself? I mean, you’re hosting the show. Are you biased against yourself?

We’re suddenly confronted with a sneaky evil twin that’s deceptive and pretty existentially confusing. There’s suddenly a new character on the media scene that has — as yet– nearly impregnable credibility: (what appears to be) ourselves. Viewers can get a satisfied sense of solidarity with the other viewers as “they” rule the school.

At some point, I think “ourselves” will move onto a new career after moderating presidential debates and start delivering news regularly. After all, who’s more objective than ourselves?

And all the while old media models still get to live on, so long as people continue to believe that it’s a reflection of themselves.

It’s pretty eerie. Uncanny Valley, anyone?


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