Editor's Note: User-Generated Politics
A version of this column appears in the December/January issue of Streaming Media magazine.
Back in September, Jose Castillo somewhat sheepishly submitted his Spicy Ideas column for this issue, a "remix," as he calls it, of the revolutionary black poet Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 classic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." He knew it was unconventional and strayed from the "typical" column format. He probably didn’t know that "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is one of my favorite pieces of music, a spoken-word manifesto calling upon Americans to reject the distractions of consumerism and mass media; face up to a country torn apart by war, racism, and runaway capitalism; and get off our asses and create a better nation.
So I have to admit I cringed a bit when I first read Jose’s piece, "The Revolution Is Being Televised", with its references to Ask a Ninja, the Star Wars Kid, Diet Coke, and Mentos—all of which seem to me to be exactly the kinds of distractions that Scott-Heron was warning us about.
But if those brands—and, heaven help us, we’re living in a time when a self-righteous prat like Bono can refer to the United States as a "brand" and nobody bats an eye—are what first jumped out at me from Jose’s remix, what stayed with me were his references to "video of foreign factory working conditions," "Egyptian bloggers being wrongfully imprisoned," and "politicians behaving badly on the campaign trail."
That’s the real revolution we’re both witnessing and playing a part in, and it’s never been clearer than it is right now. I’m writing this on Nov. 5, 2008—the day after the United States elected its first black president. It’s easy to say that race shouldn’t be a factor in politics, but a look at the hours and hours of videoclips from ordinary citizens gathered at places like the Video Your Vote channel on YouTube reminds us that it is. Again and again, people—young and old, from all races and ethnic backgrounds—shared the thrill of voting for Barack Obama in a country where, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, citizens could legally be prevented from voting based on the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage.
That Voting Rights Act came about as a direct result of grass-roots, "bottom-up" politics—protests, sit-ins, boycotts, and the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches that succeeded not because of famous leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. but because they demonstrated the power of ordinary citizens who came together to lay claim to their rights as human beings and U.S. citizens. (Which is why Bono was dead wrong when he said, at the "We Are One" concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18, that Obama's inauguration marks the day when "Dr. King's dream comes to pass." Dr. King's dream, and the dream of the thousands who marched went far beyond one person rising to the highest office in the land.)
Of course, those marches and protests were helped by the fact that they were on the nightly news, just as reports from the Vietnam War would be later in the decade. Protests of similar magnitude at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999 and against the war in Iraq across the United States in 2003 didn’t receive the same kind of coverage by the mainstream media, nor did the protests outside both the Democratic and Republican conventions in 2008. Nor, for that matter, did independent presidential candidate Ron Paul’s Ronstock, which drew more than 10,000 people to St. Paul.
You wouldn’t have known it from the major broadcast or cable news networks, but you could have watched the entire event live, in all three major streaming formats (something neither the Democrats nor Republicans could pull off), online. And while the Obama campaign suffered no lack of mainstream media coverage, it was the user-generated and viral video content—Obama Girl, will.i.am’s "Yes We Can" music video—that most successfully captured our imaginations. On the other side of the two-party coin, it was an audio clip of Obama supporting "redistributive change" that spread virally online and helped crystallize the opposition in the weeks leading up to the vote.
Sadly, the one thing that Democrats, Republicans, and independents all seemed to share was the concern that the voting would be marred by all manner of polling place problems and attempts at voter intimidation, something that knows no party affiliation and has marred almost every presidential election to one degree or another. What was different this time was a palpable sense that "we" wouldn’t let "them" get away with it, and so citizen journalists armed with camera phones set out to use the power of online video to record and disseminate examples of any nefarious doings, and maybe even to prevent them with the threat of widespread exposure.
A YouTube video still doesn’t carry the same weight as a segment on CNN, but a chorus of voices is stronger than one powerful soloist. We are indeed witnessing a revolution, one in which people not only know we have the power but don’t depend upon political and corporate gatekeepers to exercise it. Like never before, we can lift every voice and sing.
The promise of the internet was free and open discussions, but increasingly it feels like the powerful are the only ones doing the talking. Can viewers break down those narratives and create their own?