Opinion: About that online debate -- not so much

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If you were planning on dropping by Huffington Post, Slate or Yahoo! today to watch the online debate among the Democratic presidential contenders, don’t bother. As a cop at a fender-bender might say, ‘Move along, folks, nothing to see here.’

Despite months of buildup, this debate isn’t really a debate. Today, PBS talkmeister Charlie Rose will interview each of the contenders separately by satellite link-up, and will ask questions in four categories: healthcare, the Iraq war, education and a ‘wild card.’ Many, if not all, of the questions were submitted by e-mail or video. But Web watchers won’t see ...

... any of the questions or answers until sometime Thursday, after the Web folks carve them into digestible chunks, digitize them and load them up on the websites.

On Thursday, according to HuffPost spokesman Mario Ruiz, people will be able to go to the site and select the question they want, and then the candidates’ answers in a ‘mash-up’ that isn’t really a mash-up. A real mash-up would let you slice-and-dice the questions and answers into, say, a less reverential format. Like asking Hillary Clinton about her war vote and then cutting up the answer to omit every other word, which would be more funny than informative.


So the ‘online-only presidential debates’ announced in April will actually be a taped Q&A that lets viewers sort out the answers they want to see. Users were supposed to be able to watch and respond in real time, but with access to the questions and answers delayed by a day, it’s hard to see how that can happen in any meaningful way.

And it’s hard to imagine any of the candidates, after all their practice in face-to-face debates, blowing their answers or offering new twists. So what you’ll likely get is a searchable database of candidates’ positions on specific issues. Nothing really ground-breaking.

Like much of the Internet presence in the campaign so far, this looks like it will be little more than a new wrinkle in presentation. And despite the growth of Web 2.0 (the concept of using the Web to give users more direct interaction), this seems like Web 1.0. But we’ll check in Thursday and hope to be pleasantly surprised. And report back.

-- Scott Martelle