Thursday, November 06, 2008

Theirs to Lose

In my digital rhetoric class yesterday, students worked in small groups with wireless tablets and laptops projected on the screens around the room to analyze the Internet ephemera that they had found about the 2008 presidential election, which included websites, online videos, generators, computer games, Twitter postings, and Facebook and MySpace profiles on popular social network sites.

The students were highly critical of how the McCain campaign had failed to appeal to them via the Internet. As these entries on the class blog indicate, it was a debate that continued after class on the web.

Students noticed some obvious problems in McCain's Internet approach, such as long YouTube videos, pages lacking interactivity, failure to attract "friends" to the candidate's social network sites, and infrequent updating of content. But they also made more complicated arguments about how users actually navigated the various web content and interacted with the campaigns through message programs. As one student observed, giving one's e-mail to the Obama campaign is part of entering the site's standard architecture, although one can also use a "side door" to enter. Thus, even one-time visitors to the site will receive regular e-mail updates on the campaign, many of which were authored by top campaign officials. Another student compared how the candidates had used Twitter and said that there was ten times as much content coming out of the Obama campaign.

We discussed one possible pitfall to this constant channel checking that proved so successful to the Obama campaign: the way that these forms of interactivy were highly scripted, procedural products that could be even generated by a savvy computer algorithm. Having read about the Turing Test and ELIZA, the students were well-aware of how easy it might be to simulate a candidate's online presence, as a virtual Obama bot sent you what seemed to be personal messages. They also agreed that while friending a candidate may feel empowering, having him or her friend you would just be disquieting.

The class discussion stayed lively right up until the end, while the group debated whether or not the images in this Obama Photoshop site propagated racism.

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