Politics, popularity, and personalization

I already said that i love DC. Another reason to love it, are the many opportunities offered by this city.

A week ago or so, i participated in a debate/discussion about “new” media and political campaigns hosted by Google and National Journal and titled “The First 21-st Century Campaign“. Being hosted by Google, the event attracted some very interesting people and was held in a format of discussion rather than a traditional (academic) presentation-style lectures. Unfortunately, i wasn’t smart enough to bring a camera even though the event was absolutely open and the organizers even encouraged people capturing it in any possible way. Another unfortunate thing was that i couldn’t stay for the entire event and in fact stayed only for the first panel (out of three).

Ad of the Google\'s June Symposium

Fortunately, though, the first panel was very thought provoking.  Nothing super controversial or innovative has been said, but it was great to hear thet the industry people are concerned with the same issues that academics are.  Actually, i think the panel would benefit from a visionary academic person who could bring the entire discussion under a comprehensive (dare I say, macro) umbrella.

The first panel, moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS, hosted Mark Halperin (“Time” – as a representative of the old media), Katherine Ham (Townhall.com, even though she announced she has a new job now), James Kotecki (Politico – he and Katherine were the representatives of “new” media), Phil Singer (Clinton campaign), and Kevin Madden (Mitt Romney campaign _ he and Singer were the political practitioners on the panel).

Most of the discussion focused on the tensions between the “old” and the “new” media.  In my view it started pretty awkward with Kotecki’s remark that he doesn’t see himself as a journalist and was (i got a sense that he was implying that he still is) making his video just to feel popular.  It was particularly stonning because one of the main points of the discussion was credibility of the “new” media as a journalistic practice.  Kotecki himself was making claims for being credible, which (together with some of the other comments, such as those made by Singer) got me thinking whether or not the 2.0 culture equates credibility to popularity.  If so, i find that idea pretty disturbing.  One the one hand, i can buy into the idea of wisdom of crowds (that’s the term i think), but, on the other hand, i cannot buy into dismissal of expertise that seems to be attached to it (at least in the current discussion).

Another interesting point came from the campaign people and it was primarily about the use they make of information.  For Madden, the “new” media were all about speed and precision of the media message.  Even though they never got talking explicitly about how they use microtargeting (even though i raised that questions), it was constantly implied in the examples they provided.  Building of the idea of popularity, it was now also the ability of precise targeting of the message.  I would describe that as an ability of talking about “popularities” rather than a single popularity.  To a a degree that appeared as a distinction between the “old” and the “new” media as well.  I found the latter rather interesting – the basic concepts mass (popularity) did not change, but progressed and evolved (into popularities), but the substance became implicitly even less important.  In other words, there is no substantive change in the policy or in the ideas, but the package is more personalized.

As the discussion evolved, it became more interesting and sophisticated.  To one degree or another, the panelists touched upon many relevant points.  This highlight was, I think, when Singer or Halperin, noticed that the mere division between the “old” and the “new” was artificial.  Ham also was very sharp when talking about the relations between the “old” and the “new” media (even though she was clearly advocating for the legitimacy of the latter).  I found this particularly interesting, because usually you hear a very deterministically-dichotomous discourse where the “new” is presented as separate and mostly superior to the “old”.  Even though Judy Woodruff finished the panel with some techno-utopian remarks (mostly as a tribute to the host), it did spoil the overall flavor of complexity.

On the practical level i came out of this symposium with two titles for potential books.  Not that i plan on writing those this summer, but… If i were to write a book with critical analysis of the modern Western society, particularly focusing on the youth, i would title it “The popularity generation.”  Maybe there is such a book already and maybe it will become the label of generation Y with all the reality shows and a myriad of televised competitions (for popularity of course :).  The other book would be about this campaign, or about contemporary politics in a broader sense.  That one i would title “The politics of personalization.”

Finally, kind of getting back to one of my first points, i think the symposium would really benefit from an academic input.  Maybe even more broadly, i think this industry could learn as much from the academia as the academia is learning from it.  At the end of the day, all the points raised by the panelists are being discussed and studied, and bringing those inputs would enrich the discussion and probably take it into the next level.

You can read a short post following the event on Google’s blog or you can actually watch the entire thing on C-Span (and enjoy me asking some questions :).

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