After the Debates: Using the Internet to Win at the Water Cooler


Cross-posted on techPresident

Way on back in 2007, we used to talk about how the internet fit into a presidential debate, that hallowed (and effective) tradition of the televison era. We even had two YouTube debates — remember them? Talking snowman and all that? Didn’t make a lot of difference in the end, though they were certainly entertaining.

But here’s how the internet REALLY interacts with the presidential debates — it’s going to help shape the collective water-cooler discussion tonight and tomorrow, and the campaigns are going to be fully in the fray from the start. McCain and the Wall Street Journal might have jumped the gun with victory ads today, but surely both the McCain and Obama campaigns have online search/display ads, videos, emails and text messages ready to launch. During and after, they don’t want to miss a beat in trying to shape the public’s perception of what happened and what’s happening.

As the candidates are actually on the stage, twitterers, live-bloggers and other in-the-moment commentators will publicly parse their words and mannerisms, while campaign spinners simultaneously flood reporters’ Blackberries with emailed quotes, contradictions and gaffe-alerts. Most will share the same goal: forming the collective definition of “what happened at the debates,” as will the emails (and text messages?) that flood out to members of the Obama and McCain supporter lists.

Over the following day or two, as people talk with their friends and family about what they saw themselves or heard happened, we’ll start to develop a collective sense of what we believe about the candidates based on their few minutes together. We’ll make up our minds in part based on own own eyes but also based on what’s filtered through others’ interpretations. Cable television, print reporters, talk radio and blogs will help to shape the official narrative (or more likely, one narrative for each side plus a hazy concept of [neutral?] truth), but so will our conversations with each other, in person, on the phone, via email and in online discussion groups.

The more campaigns can arm their supporters with the tools to win those water-cooler discussions, the more they have a chance to help to shape our collective definition of the “truth” of the campaign right now. In 1960, the “truth” became that John Kennedy wasn’t too young to lead. In 1984, the “truth” became that Reagan wasn’t too out-of-it to lead (oops). In 2008? We’ll know soon — and the campaigns will make sure that our personal talking points are close at hand.

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