Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Last night's debate: A missed opportunity

Last nights supposed "town hall" style debate fell far short of what a truly people-powered debate could look like. With questions coming from hand-picked audience members - and just 4 questions coming from the Internet - there was a huge missed opportunity here to engage more voters directly with the candidates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, when it announced the debate series last fall, pointed to the Nashville debate as the one that would engage new media:

"The second departure from past CPD formats will be the introduction of internet access to the presidential town meeting debate," the Commission stated in a press release. "Questions solicited by Internet will be included with those from citizens on the stage with the candidates... The Commission believes that by including questions from Internet participants, we will enhance and expand the effectiveness of the town meeting debate. This technique has been employed in different ways during many of the primary debates. We will continue to learn from its use in the primary season, and we intend to consult with experts in information technology who can help us integrate it."

The Commission, to their credit, did work with MySpace to develop - a site where people could submit questions for Tom Brokaw's review. The site also has some nice polling functionality and allows you to toggle through the debate footage by issue. While these are features that most platforms already provide (ours included), did present a nice interface to engage with the content.

But it was not a way to influence the actual debate itself, and let citizens drive the questioning. It's impossible to imagine the Brokaw and his staff could actually look at the thousands of questions submitted and surmise which were most prevalently on the mind of voters. For that to happen, you need to tap into the wisdom of crowds.

As we've mentioned here before, Our friends at Google have done just that with a new platform called, "Google Moderator". The platform allows you to submit a question for the candidates, and vote on the ones you like most. Bad questions, spammed questions, and other inappropriate material gets surpressed by the most active users, and the most prevalent questions rise to the top of several different issue buckets. We started a version of Moderator for the debates that you can see here.

This is the kind of format that truly taps into the power of the Internet to insure the questions most on the minds of voters reach the candidates in a debate. Jose Vargas points that out in his column in today's Washington Post.

However - just because it didn't happen in the live debate, doesn't mean the candidates can't still answer the top questions via Google Moderator - and post those answers to their YouTube channel.

In fact, one candidate already has: Bob Barr. See below his YouTube video response to the top questions on Moderator. Would be great to see the McCain and Obama campaigns follow suit.

As we've said before, our CNN/YouTube Debates had a format that pushed the role of the citizen forward - and there is still a long way to go and lots of opportunities to engage more voters in our most important public forums.

To learn more from a bipartisan group that's doing great work in this area is the Open Debate Coalition -- see their website here.


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