Google Hangouts, Wifi Addiction and Tunnel Vision at the GOP Convention
Doug Bernard | Tampa FL
A colleague in Washington asked me today: “So, are you getting to see much of Tampa while you’re at the convention?” I’m quite sure they had no idea just how funny that was.
While Republican delegates are whooping it up on the arena floor of the Tampa Times Forum – or spending off hours at swanky restaurants – there are thousands of journalists, bloggers and other malcontents grinding away on the barren concrete floors of the neighboring Tampa Convention Center. (For the record, it will be exactly the same at the Democratic convention next week in Charlotte.)
Covering conventions may be many things, but swank is not among them. In the eight I’ve attended so far, it’s always the same. The hours are grueling, the food is fried, the coffee cold and your feet swollen.
Not that I’m complaining (much.) Or that there aren’t exceptions here and there. Take the Google lounge here in Tampa. Unlike the harsh light and drab surroundings of most working areas, the Google lounge is colorful and cool, brimming with hip displays and tired reporters catching up on the news or with each other.
“We’re really here to create conversations,” says Google spokesman Daniel Sieberg.”There’s a lot of things we think are important to the political discourse, so we’re here in a non-partisan format to just have that conversation here at the RNC, and then next week at the DNC, too.”
One of the ways – frankly, the very cool ways – that Google is hosting that conversation is with something called the Google+ “Hangout Studio.” An instant TV studio in a plastic cube, the set is plopped down in the middle of the Google lounge, bringing delegates and activists together with people the world over joining via video chats on Google+. It’s a loose and varied conversation, which is exactly what one would expect on the subject of politics.*
Not that many in the lounge seem to be paying attention. Apart from the free coffee, the biggest draw in the Google lounge, and just about everywhere else in Tampa, seems to be anything on the mobile phone.
Wifi isn’t just a nicety here – it’s a necessity.
“A lot of people said 2008 was going to be the social convention. Now, I think we’re blowing that out of the water,” says Facebook’s Andrew Noyes without much hyperbole. While Facebook, Twitter and other social networks were up and running in 2008, they felt more like a side bar for many attendees, and the campaigns didn’t go much further than offering up a website or sending out news releases on Twitter. Four years later, it’s a different world.
“Everybody here, whether you’re a delegate or a journalist, has a new focus on social media and sharing,” says Noyes. He’s correct – everybody here has at least one mobile device, and they are very much in use, as evidenced by the constant finger swiping. Want to find someone for an interview? Don’t bother phoning – nobody picks up anymore. Send a text, tweet at them, chat them on any number of platforms.
But all this leaves one to wonder: just how much sharing is too much? Can there possibly that much interesting happening here? The answer is probably not; but woe be unto you if you happen to miss the one big thing just because you were unconnected for five minutes.
With noses firmly planted in glowing screens, everyone’s trying to keep a millisecond ahead of the next guy at the convention. (For example, one next guy, former colleague and still friend Don Gonyea with NPR has adorned his Facebook page with much more convention stuff than I have.) Which leads to a paradox: with all that sharing and immediate access to information, it’s become easier than ever to forget that there’s a whole world of news still happening.
Old hands call it the “Convention Hole.” I prefer to think of it as tunnel vision. Whoever you are, when you’re here, the rest of the world tends to evaporate into a blur of speeches, security cordons and balloons. Speaking only for myself, I’m finding my mobile device only amplifies that, turning a sea of global information into a trickle of convention trivia. And I can’t be the only one.
Not like this will change anything. American conventions and politics are increasingly an online sport, whether digi-skeptics such as myself like it or not. The task now seems to be not whether to embrace social media, but rather to learn how to manage it.
Everything else being equal, it’s all a little overwhelming. Lucky thing there’s always the Google coffee.
*Next week we’ll be profiling all the digital/social media at the conventions, including Facebook, Twitter, Buzzfeed and others.