The Internet battle over the presidential campaign is ratcheting up following announcements by social-networking site MySpace and video-sharing hub YouTube that they plan live webcasts of town hall meetings and candidate debates leading up to the primaries.
Both said they seek to draw more voters into the political process, but the sites also are engaged in what is shaping up as an old-style media fight over online information consumers -- and the ad revenues they bring.
“It’s almost like the ‘browser battle’ -- which site is the new e-mail? Which is the new standard for how people communicate?” said Eli Pariser, executive director of the liberal activist group MoveOn.org.
Credibility hangs in the balance as both sites seek to position themselves as more than one-trick ponies where users share passions for rock bands or post funny videos, said Josh Bernoff, a social-computing analyst at Forrester Research.
“Both MySpace and YouTube would like to establish themselves as serious political sites,” he said. “They want to be broader, more multidimensional.”
MySpace is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, YouTube by dominant search engine Google.
In a measure of the growing significance of online politics, key executives from major Web companies -- including Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt -- took part Friday in the fourth annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York, a gathering of people trying to find new ways of inspiring political action via the Internet.
The potential pool is huge. More than 21 million people had viewed online political videos as of February, Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, told the conference. And, he said, more than 24 million have participated in organized online lobbying campaigns.
Still, those numbers represent a relatively narrow slice of the electorate. In the last presidential election, about 122 million votes were cast.
The conference came a week after MySpace announced that it would hold a series of webcast town halls with Democratic and Republican presidential contenders, adding to a planned virtual primary in January.
“I think it is, unambiguously, a good thing not just for MySpace users and MySpace in general, but for the political process,” said Jeff Berman, vice president for public affairs. “It doesn’t matter how much money a campaign has or how highprofile the candidate is; if they have a message and deliver it, they will find an audience.”
Google’s YouTube YouChoose 08 site followed with an announcement that it would cosponsor with CNN a Democratic debate in July, and was in talks to cosponsor Republican debates as well.
Facebook.com also is playing a role: It established profile pages for each major candidate through which they can communicate with Facebook users.
And other sites with narrower focuses are emerging, such as Change.org, which will help people pool donations around specific causes, bonding into informal political action committees, founder Ben Rattray said.
MySpace is quickly becoming a key player in online politics, said Micah L. Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum.
“MySpace has become a virtual state fair, and every campaign has decided they are going to have a booth there -- hopefully not too close to the bearded ladies and the strippers,” said Sifry, also co-editor of TechPresident.com, which tracks Internet use in the 2008 presidential race. “But the truth is, there isn’t going to be just one major hub.”
Schmidt of Google, a conference sponsor, told the audience that online politics faced the same problem as traditional politics: the tendency to focus on the negative and the minor.
YouTube videos of candidate miscues, and the prevalence of cellphone video cameras, resonate with voters in new ways. “A very small group of people can analyze and exploit” information to attack a candidate, and immediately find a forum, he said.
“Information that was publicly known but hard to get to is now becoming general knowledge,” Schmidt said.
Pariser, in a separate session, warned that attack videos threatened the Web’s role. “In order to fully embrace the power of people-powered politics and user-generated politics, we’re going to have to get through the phase of ‘gotcha’ politics,” he said. “It could kill the potential that this new politics has.”
The daylong conference at Pace University also drew five major presidential contenders’ top Web strategists, including Joe Trippi, now with Democrat John Edwards’ campaign. Trippi helped usher in e-politics as manager of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But several Web innovators argued that candidate-driven e-politics had shown minimal success in creating sustained political movements. After election day, the candidate-centered communication usually stops.
The future might lie in organizing around issues rather than politicians.
Scott Heiferman is CEO of Meetup.com, a 5-year-old social networking site that Dean supporters used in 2004 to selforganize. He told the forum that the site had noticed an increased number of issue groups.
“These ‘meetups’ are going to last a long time,” he said. “They are sustainable local groups.”
And they offer openings for candidates to reach voters through new avenues. Heiferman cited Meetup’s “Moms,” a national network of mothers organized by city.
“Like the way Karl Rove reached out to the churches in 2004,” Heiferman said, a challenge facing candidates is how to reach out to online communities.