I continue to find interest in the YouTube phenomena for this election. It’s not so much that it’s a new phenomena — video has been around for a number of years and was certainly present in 2004 (remember the Swift Boat video?) — as one sufficiently mature to include people who ‘don’t know them computers too good.’
I think back as far as the 1996 election, where it was believed for the first time that the Internet could play a significant role in national politics and elections. Libertarian Harry Browne (RIP) was the ‘undisputed’ "President of Cyberspace" (glad we got beyond that silly term), the democrats had been routed in 1994, Clinton was not doing well, and there was this sense that something might break loose and the Internet could be the catalyst. But it was a pipe dream; again in 2000.
The reason that Presidential elections are so easy to predict is that it’s a 50/50 proposition for the most part. At 50/50, many people can easily have runs of four, five, even six or more consecutive correct picks (especially with access to information). With four year election cycles, this gives virtually any political pundit or analyst with half a brain a pretty good shot at a nice long career, and it’s mostly just by accident.
Though not entirely.
It’s not so much that the MSM picks the next President, as that it somewhat picks the two contenders. It’s just a process of narrowing the field, making some money from everyone, until they see who stands to break out, raise the most money, and drown the airwaves in ad campaigns. This gets it down to the 50/50 realm were the decision is binary, and then people spend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying their best to distinguish one candidate from another and the dire, life or death importance of those minuscule distinctions.
Every now and then you get a landslide; notably, Johnson – Goldwater in ’64 and Reagan – Carter in ’80. Now, I wasn’t around observing in ’64 at the age of three, but I did observe obsessively in 1980 and what I noted most was that it was supposed to be a much closer race. Why? Well, maybe because of the gigantesque presidential election industry. It’s not just the media networks. It’s the party organizations themselves, the consultants, the pundits, the analysts, the pollsters — now: the bloggers — and everyone else that goes into creating a great spectacle for your entertainment. Runaway victories can be fun, but not for the months on end that a presidential campaign runs. It’s got to be "neck & neck," and "too close to call" in order to sustain interest sufficient to make the whole exercise "meaningful" and profitable.
And this whole massively profitable business requires a few things for continued success. It requires a simple choice like A or B; maybe C, sometimes, but that dramatically increases the possibilities, the unpredictability, and makes it far less easy to control. I’m sure Ross Perot worked out fine for the election industry, but there was always the risk — had he been the "right" candidate and not such a loony tune — that he could have broken away entirely, making the rest of the process a mere formality and a losing year for the election business. Nope; not optimal. Keep it simple, with very little difference in actual practical governing terms between the candidates and then fool everyone (with controlled and scripted narrative) into believing that there’s a great difference; and yes, I get fooled too — just about every time and even when I know I’m being fooled. We just can’t help it.
At this point, it’s only fair to mention that I’m drawing — again; sick of it, yet? — from ideas gleaned over these last months from Taleb, whose two books are the first two in my reading stack, and which I still dive into for reference continually. Though I don’t think he discusses the political process I’m attempting to apply his good work to that.
So what does YouTube bring to the table? I think: decentralized and uncontrollable randomness. If you sit back and try to imagine the narrative the news networks are going to be coming up with for each new stage of this process — assuming you’ve been observing for a few cycles — you’re likely to do a pretty good job; and even if you’re wrong, you’re probably not going to be wrong so much that it makes a great deal of difference. What’s the next passionate Ron Paul supporter video going to be? I have absolutely no idea. And as there have already been, there will be hundreds, if not thousands of them by the time this is done. Other candidates have fans making videos too, but they just lack a certain element — a sincere passion, perhaps — such that to my knowledge they still aren’t being nearly as widely viewed as Paul’s supporter-created videos.
Take a look at this. That’s the other element of random unpredictability. What may be more important than that Paul, a "second tier" candidate, won Fox News’ call in poll by a huge margin is that his many YouTube videos got a huge spike in viewership over the weekend (he now leads Hillary! 260,000 views to 45,000 views (the Google interview) and hers has been up there six times as long. The third aspect is the viral element: those who view it spurring others to view it, and so on. This is all completely outside the traditional neat and tight narrative control the media and political parties strive to engineer throughout the process.
I’ve used the term "narrative" a couple of times, so let me expound on what I mean. First, it’s virtually all narrative. Even facts, figures, statistics and poll results are delivered within a narrative backdrop. Even on USENET and various web forums back in 1996, the millions of postings were there to essentially tell a story; to summarize. Our brains are simply not large enough to contain and make perfect rational sense of all the data. We have to place it into some narrative form as a short cut. This gets us into trouble and causes us to get things wrong far more than we realize, but that’ s not the point of this. My point is that the "quality" of the narrative wins the election. Under the scripted, highly capitalized control of the news networks, a near 50/50 "neck & neck" and "too close to call" proposition is created, nurtured and maintained all the way up to the finish line in order to lure maximum attention and profits.
But now, we’ve arrived at a place where making a short, complete narrative (not just text; video, sound, moving images and music) is within the reach of thousands of little producers who require capitalization of no more than a few thousand dollars and a little time. And some of them are very talented. The narratives they bring to bear are all over the map and will increasingly be so.
Will it make a big difference in this election, or will the binary A or B news media still be able to control the action in order to prevent a runaway virus?
We’ll see and I’ll be watching.