A Virtual State Of The Union

Posted February 11th, 2013 at 3:28 pm (UTC-4)
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Using The Web To Advance Politics

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Tuesday evening, as President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union, millions of people in the United States and around the world will turn to their TVs and radios to learn what may be in store over the coming year. But a growing number will also increasingly turn to the Internet and social media, not only to listen to the address, but to engage in instant political debate during and after.

President Reagan delivers the 1983 State of the Union address (Wikimedia Commons)

The State of the Union speech is more tradition than constitutional requirement, becoming in the 20th Century a major media event and the closest thing the US has to monarchical pomp and ceremony. As media changed, so did the speech. For most of American history, the speech wasn’t even that, but rather just a written message from the President and delivered to Congress to be read into the record.

1923 brought the first speech broadcast via radio (President Calvin Coolidge’s first) and 1947 the first seen on television (President Harry Truman’s second.) As broadcast coverage increased, so did the speech itself, growing longer and, in 1965, moving to prime time. (George Washington’s first speech was less than 10 minutes long, while President Bill Clinton’s final address clocked in at one hour and 49 minutes.)

The digital revolution continues that evolution. In 2002, President George W. Bush’s first SOTU address, coming just four months after the terror attacks of Sept. 11th, was webcast live for the first time. That was two years before Facebook, four years before Twitter and five years before the first iPhone. Now, in the second decade of the 21st Century, the State of the Union has become a social media event: a portable, borderless political debate.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” says Sarah Lauren Stern with the group League of Young Voters. “The end-game is to empower young folks to become active participants in our democracy, and not just on Election Day.”

To that end, Stern’s organization is producing an international SOTU event that exists both online and the real world. All day Tuesday, the LYV will host a series of panel discussions taking place at the popular DC eatery “Busboys And Poets” and, following that, a live SOTU watch party.*

By itself, that’s not so unusual – watch parties for all sorts of events have become popular pastimes at all sorts of bars across the country. But the LYV is going several steps beyond that – all online.

All day Tuesday, the League will stream a live webcast online of the panels for anyone to watch, and is also organizing an on-going Twitter and Facebook discussion in real time. It’s called “#BarackTalk” and in years past, thousands of people from across the nation and around the world have joined in. Stern says the discussions have been passionate, energetic and memorable – everything that good politics should be.

“The idea that young people don’t care about politics is a myth, plain and simple,” she says:

“The web is an important conduit for advocacy and political involvement. First of all, it enables any person with a smartphone or internet connection to get involved with a cause – regardless of if there is a local movement in their area. More importantly, it’s the quintessential space where American society discusses its values and exchanges information. The numbers don’t lie – 66% of social media users post about civic issues.”

The Internet, by its very nature, encourages many-to-many conversations that aren’t limited by borders, language or even time as actual human conversations can be. When something happens, increasingly it isn’t just reflected online but amplified and changed by many voices and hands. When something as important as the State of the Union moves into social media, it becomes something altogether new.

Of course, new isn’t necessarily better. Political discussion is invariably made better when participants actually listen to each other and work to understand ideas different from their own. As we’ve often noted, this is not one of the web’s stronger suits.

Still, Sarah Lauren Stern says if the ultimate goal is for people to listen, you first have to get them to talk – and little does that as well as the web:

“The Internet is the modern-day town square. It enables anyone who cares about a cause to build community, discuss an issue, and mobilize people to act quickly. Not all issues require a rapid response, but when they do, the web is the most efficient way to spread the word and take action. On top of all of that, the amount of information and knowledge-sharing available online is infinite. That being said, nothing can replace the value of having a conversation face-to-face about an issue.”

You can watch the League’s live stream above, or at their webpage. Twitter users are encouraged to share their opinions using the hashtag #baracktalk; non-Twitter users can follow the social stream here.

*Full disclosure: VOA will have a reporter at the LYV watch event for our live TV/radio simulcast.

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