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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 July 2007, 21:51 GMT 22:51 UK
YouTube debate: hype or history?
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington

Senators John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (left to right)

For the first time, candidates in a US presidential debate have faced only questions posed directly by the voters via online video clips.

The South Carolina event was anticipated by many as a turning point in political dialogue, with the journalists giving way to the public.

Almost 40 of some 3,000 questions submitted were put to the field of eight Democrats, ranging in topic from Iraq to health care, global warming, race, gay marriage and taxes.

The approach was certainly lively, with questioners using often quirky video techniques and the candidates asked to produce their own 30-second clip too.

But did the link-up between video-sharing website YouTube and news network CNN produce something revolutionary - or just a new spin on old tricks?

I heard some very silly questions, I heard some very good questions - in other words, it's just like a debate where the journalists ask the questions
Political scientist Larry Sabato
For Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics, University of Virginia, the debate was an interesting experiment in format but little more.

He said: "It was a turning point in a sense. This will become part of the process in at least some debates in all future primary and general elections.

"It's an innovation and it involved the public and especially young people, and that's all to the good.

"Did it fundamentally change the nature of the debate? No.

"I heard some very silly questions, I heard some very good questions - in other words, it's just like a debate where the journalists ask the questions."

He said that one problem with the format was that the questioners lacked the opportunity to follow up on their questions if the politicians avoided the point.

Another issue is that members of the public may not have the in-depth knowledge of politics to expose the nuances in candidates' positions, Mr Sabato said.

Emotional hit

Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, said the format made an impact when it got personal.

Cancer patient Kim removes her wig

For example, the debate included a question on healthcare posed by a woman with cancer, and a man who asked a question about Iraq showed the flags from the coffins of his grandfather, father and son, who were all killed in conflict.

"It's not the first time the internet has been used - we've seen in a number of debates the moderator posing an internet question," said Dr Bierbauer.

"But what we haven't had is the face, the voice, the emotion and involvement of the individuals asking the questions themselves, so it's that novelty which is beneficial."

Dr Bierbauer described the idea of the debate as a 21st Century version of a town hall meeting. Overall, the result was entertaining television which may help to reach a new and younger audience, he said, but there were no surprises in terms of candidates' responses.

Animated snowman

Professor Charles Whitney, of the University of California, saw the debate's value as appealing to a new audience who may not have listened to the candidates before.

John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama laugh during the debate
The video format produced some light-hearted moments for all
"I think the point was mostly trying to engage young people in the political process," said Professor Whitney.

He pointed to a video question on global warming, posed by an animated snowman, as an example of an entertaining, if not silly, approach used to pose a serious question.

"If you are interested in really fairly serious political debate, at least as serious as Americans can make it, we need to see the field reduced to three or four contenders," he added.

The Republican debate on 17 September will be a chance to see whether YouTube users have embraced the role of video-interrogators, he said.

'Average Joe'

Blogger Steve Petersen, who was one of a handful of people who submitted online questions to be invited to South Carolina in person, was more positive about the debate's democratising power.

His video was not shown in the end but he said he was impressed by the potential access to those in power.

"It's definitely personalised the debate and opened it maybe not to the 'average Joe' - not every person has broadband and the savvy to make YouTube work - but definitely to the more average Joe," he said.

"Looking at the questions asked, there was a pretty wide cross-section of people and different types of people.

"It may not be truly all of America but it was definitely a much broader cross-section of American society than we have seen represented before."

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