Just How Much Political Video Can We Handle?

A Monday night segment on viral video on NPR’s Marketplace got me thinking: are we really ready for the sheer volume of political video that’s going to be unleashed over the next 18 months? Think about it: when the presidential campaigns are joined by senatorial, congressional, gubernatorial, state legislative, mayoral, etc etc etc, campaigns, all down to the level of local school board candidates, everybody just step back — this thing’s going to get huge. Add in the video clips created by media outlets, interest groups and citizens, and the amount of political video available is going to be mind-boggling — we have to assume that the number of clips related to the ’08 elections will rise into the millions or tens of millions.

So, what happens in that kind of world? As political video becomes a mass commodity, what trends of the wider video world will it follow — i.e., will all candidates have to become unbearably cute kittens? (Might be a particularly hard stretch for John McCain.) Some predictions:

  • Viral takeoff will become even more difficult. According to Marketplace, with viral video, “distribution’s effectively free and incredibly effective,” but let’s be real here — for every successful instance of viral takeoff, hundreds or thousands of attempts fail miserably. Viral takeoff is a real phenomenon, but it’s usually unpredictable and involves something quirky that just happens to catch a wave in the online audience. INTENTIONAL viral distribution of content is already very, very hard to pull off (though obviously effective when it works), and each individual political video will have an even heavier rock to roll up that slope when it’s competing with millions of rivals.
  • Consequently, quality will be key! Clips will have to be compelling (and probably funny) to have any chance of getting noticed.
  • Filtering will become even more important. With such a huge volume, people are going to rely on their friends and other filters such as media outlets and blogs to pull interesting stuff out of the swirling mass of random content. Becoming a featured clip on YouTube and similar sites will matter even more than now.
  • Because of these limitations, video will be less of an outreach channel and more of a tool for reinforcing, educating and persuading. As with so many other aspects of the online political world, video will work best when people actively seek it out, as when they’re visiting a candidate site or an election video channel that combines content from a number of campaigns. Except for that rare handful of clips that do explode out to a mass audience (a la Macaca or the Hillary/1984 ad), online video generally won’t catch and influence random passers-by in the way that television ads do — online video is video-on-demand, and it’ll work best when people are demanding it.
  • When it IS effective as an outreach tool, video will usually work best when spread by supporters to people they know. This is a corollary of the point above about filtering — people are most influenced by the opinions of friends and others they trust, so the campaigns will get the most out of video outreach when they can get their supporters enthusiastic about passing clips along.

Now, let’s just sit back for a few months and watch the show — we’ll know all too soon whether these predictions are on the mark, assuming our computers don’t throw up their shiny electronic hands in dismay at what we ask them to show us and go on strike.


Written by
Colin Delany
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1 comment
  • Colin, you’re making a larger point, but this is in part what I was getting at in my post about vote different that you were kind enough to link to a few months back.

    While we’ll always have breakout viral hits, but voter generated, Viral Video is going to become a niche activity that spreads among social networks and subcultural communities. And it will be filtered, disseminated, and judged in all the ways you suggest (I think particularly important is your point about persuasion and reinforcement as the ultimate purpose of viral, voter generated video).

    It’s not as flashy as hitting it big time like Phil de Velis, but in the aggregate it’s probably equally if not more important.