Tucked into one corner of a park near where I work is a living monument to freedom of expression – Speaker’s Corner. Just about anyone is allowed to speak about almost any topic, though on my last visit most of the topics seemed to be about religious conversion. The blogosphere seems to fulfill a similar role however it lacks the local concentration and non-verbal communication of the London “attraction”. I’ve now come to realise that YouTube has become the Net equivalent of Speaker’s Corner. The video clip sharing site initially gained popularity among teenagers and young adults and the most popular videos from week to week would reflect this. The most heated debates would typically concern the identity of a mysterious video blogger or whether a magic trick employed video special effects. But as election season in America draws near, I’ve begun noticing more political topics appearing amongst the most viewed clips. Last month, one such heavily viewed example (especially when summing up the duplicate submissions) was the Bill Clinton interview by FoxNews’ Chris Wallace. Curiously, even though FoxNews spun it as Clinton acts crazed, most of the YouTube clips seemed to have been posted by anti-Bush critics. Inevitably, the polarised battleground of American politics descended upon the site’s comment system. The more sophisticated commenters posted video responses, while the less sophisticated posted clips from cable TV that expessed an opinion with which they agreed. One popular source for these prepackaged video opinions is The Daily Show with John Stewart, and Stewart’s comment on the Clinton-FoxNews media focus was particularly insightful in that it suggested a key reason for the growing influence of video blogging in the political arena.
The failure of mainstream media is a common theme on The Daily Show and it is a sad state of affairs when The Comedy Channel seems to do more fact checking than the 24/7 news channels. One exception is Keith Olbermann whose recent Special Comments are rapidly earning him much respect among liberal progressive bloggers and much hatred from the rightwing. As with The Daily Show, clips from Olbermann’s Countdown programme often get posted to YouTube (e.g. K.O.’s take on the Clinton interview and a fact-checking follow-up stemming from it.
Currently, Foleygate is the hot political topic among the video bloggers and as November draws near the politically-related activity on YouTube will only increase. It will be interesting to examine in postmortem whether this will have had any effect on the US Congressional elections. But one thing is certain – the phenomenon is sure to extend far beyond the video blogging community as political broadcasts continue to shift over to the Net.