Obama and Politics 2.0

Transparency comes to the White House.

Photograph by Neven Raja Samara

In July of 2007, New York University graduate film professor Arun Chaudhary took leave of his day job to become Barack Obama’s director of video field production. Chaudhary joined a group of people without political experience but with a wealth of media experience. These individuals were also willing to take pay cuts from places like CNN and Facebook to work with a candidate who saw the potential of social media — a guy who was ready to run a new kind of campaign and, eventually, a new kind of government.

In conjunction with the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program and Fast Company magazine, design mind invited Chaudhary to speak about his experiences on the campaign trail. Ellen McGirt, senior writer for Fast Company, moderated the discussion at ITP’s NYU building, on July 16, 2008.

Ellen McGirt:

This is one of the more dramatic political campaigns of the modern era, in part because we get to watch so much of it unfold and feel like we’ve been there.

Arun Chaudhary:

I think every campaign resembles its candidate, I guess the way people resemble their pets. One of the mandates from the senator himself was to have a smooth-running operation that doesn’t have any drama, is set up for customer service, is really efficient, and doesn’t throw money around. At first, it was like, “Wouldn’t it be cute to put videos up on the Web?” But as the team has evolved, people have seen the power of what we’ve shot and how technology has caught up with it. Now, they’ll use these images for television ads; they’re broadcast quality. And the Obama campaign hasn’t seen anything as being too precious to take a chance with, in part because we have a candidate who’s seemingly so different from other people in politics that it blows the lid off of what you can or can’t try.

EM:

There is a certain amount of courage that comes from working with a variety of people, letting their aesthetic and their ideas shape the images around the campaign, and then letting them do it. Would all this even have been possible four years ago?

AC:

The technology was there four years ago, but I think the right audience online wouldn’t have been. I think it would have been the same 600 people who comment on every political blog. But now all kinds of people watch things on the Internet. On YouTube they have a tool called Insight. You press the button, and it gives you demographic information about who and where people are watching your stuff. Although it’s probably not a very accurate yardstick, at least it gives us trends. And it seems that people are a lot older than you’d think, which is one of the biggest misconceptions that we’ve been able to blow open. According to Insight, people between 45 and 55 are the main audience for our YouTube videos, not 18 to 34 as expected. It’s fairly shocking.

EM:

Talk to us about the pressure people felt to make a big impact in Iowa, and how video played a role.

AC:

Before Iowa it was just guessing. You know, you’re hoping things have an impact, you’re hoping people are listening. But the general idea was, we have this amazing guy, so we’ve got to get him in front of as many people as possible.

[Also,] people in these early states feel a sense of entitlement to see the candidates. So if someone was in a town ten miles away from where the rally was, they probably wouldn’t go. To actually reach some of these people, you need to get to them with video. It’s a lot about showing organizational strength.

So we did as much promotion as we could to get people to come to these events; enough to show that we were everywhere. We were constantly pumping out new video. All so that people might say, “Oh, I didn’t see Barack Obama, but he was in Keokuk. Keokuk’s five miles from my house. Maybe I’ll watch this on the Internet.” And people would. It’s not the same as being there, but we always feel like if we put up a clip from an event it’s as if we added extra seats in the room or gotten extra people there, or gave them rides to the event. And we put an authentic piece of Obama in front of them.

The Jefferson Jackson dinner [in Iowa]…. was the turning point of when he became a viable candidate. The night was so important that we couldn’t leave any stone unturned. No matter how cute, no matter how crazy, it was really important just to make sure we had all our bases covered and that someone who was just on the fence saying, “Yeah, but it’s cold,” because it does get cold in Iowa, would make it out.

EM:

So you filmed the entire speech. What was the process? And how soon was it up on the website?

AC:

The whole video team stayed up all night and most of the next day in a hotel room cutting it all together, because we really blew it out that night. We had five cameras: one on the main riser, one balcony, one on the bottom, one outside for the parade, one on a rooftop. We really did it up, which was funny, because that was the night that I met Hannah, Hillary Clinton’s videographer. And we were sitting next to each other on the riser. First it was standoffish, then it was like, oh, this is fine. We’re both really hungry. “If you have any food…” It turned out she had a PowerBar and I had a Coca-Cola, so we made peace. But one of the first questions she asked was, “Do you want me to watch your camera when you jump down to get Barack working the rope line and I’ll do the same when Hillary comes out?” And I had to say, “I don’t actually need that, because we have five people here.” So organizational strength is important.

EM:

There are also the quick-response videos. It seems like the Clinton campaign’s “3:00 a.m. ad” was a jarring moment for you guys. Walk us through what that was like and how you formulated your response.

AC:

Sometimes your candidate gets mischaracterized or painted in a certain way, and it’s important for the candidate to come back and say what they think. And I think both traditional media — we call them traditional media, not old media — and the new media teams were, in their different ways, coming back at this very hard. The traditional media team released an ad, either the same day or the next day. In this ad, the phone was still ringing and there were still problems, but this time Barack Obama answered.

Then a news story broke that the young lady who was in the “3:00 a.m. ad” — the girl who was actually sleeping in the stock footage they used — is an Obama supporter and was going to be caucusing for him in Washington State. So the new media team was able to track her down and make the ad for the Internet.

EM:

What I particularly love about [that] ad is that [it] deconstructs some of the techniques of pretty tough political ads that we often just let wash over us without thought.

AC:

If you’re talking about last cycle to this cycle, no one would have had the capabilities to go make something that fast. Now we have the means to film and deliver it. This is the kind of idea a lot of people would have, but it would be too precious to put on TV in terms of resources. It takes a full minute to tell the story. First she explains what’s happening, then she explains who she is, and then she makes an “ask to volunteer.” It’s three acts, and to put that on television would be incredibly expensive, especially if people decided that Casey Knowles was irritating and not cute. But doing this on the Internet turned out to be extremely effective, and it just wouldn’t have been tried if it could only be for television.

EM:

I would say there is a level or an element in this campaign where Obama is always mischaracterized. But it sounds like there is also a level of thoughtful restraint and judgment about how to or how not to respond.

AC:

Yes, and it comes straight from him. He’s the guy who says, “Uh…” while he’s thinking of his answer, instead of launching right into it. That was a cue that I had to take from the campaign [and] from him — that it’s okay to say, “Uh…” while you actually stop to think about what you want to say and not just leave your lips flapping to cover for time. That’s what we do in the entertainment industry.

EM:

What have you learned about what people are watching? Are they watching every minute of all these long speeches?

AC:

Yes. And that’s one of the most interesting and gratifying elements of this. Not just that they’re watching our stuff. That’s not it at all. It’s more that the culture of the sound bite appears to be totally over-hyped. People actually enjoy watching things in their entirety. We call it the sound blast, versus the sound bite. As we started to put up things that were longer, people would ask where the rest of it was. If we put up one question from a town hall in Des Moines, people would say, “I want to see the whole thing.” Or when there were a couple of Oprah events, people demanded more: “I want to see the one in Des Moines and the one in Cedar Rapids.” People want very little editing, to feel as if they were there.

We would like to think that has to do with the general message of the new media part of the campaign — that people who support us are empowered. Like with MyBO, which is sort of like our own Facebook, you can figure out how you can make phone calls and volunteer. I think since people feel a certain sense of ownership about it, all of a sudden they want to see how we’re really doing, and not just to get the clip where he says the funny thing but to actually get the entire 40-minute speech and watch it all.

EM:

Could you imagine a President Obama, and what that presidency might be like in terms of video, in terms of media? How would he use it to govern? How do you see this evolving?

AC:

There are some very interesting and clear applications for it, and I think they will actually be even more powerful when governing. The idea of what new media can bring to a campaign is pretty clear: it’s a lot of faster, better, cheaper. But in terms of governing, I think it can actually open up very new avenues. Obama has always talked about wanting to have fireside chats like FDR, but put them on the Internet. However, he usually talks about the applications of new media in terms of health care, like having a lot of broad-based debate going on in the public eye and transparency in government. If we could live-stream all of these subcommittee meetings to a wide audience, it would be much harder to get away with back-deal politics.

We’ve already seen this transparency in some of Obama’s policies. He co-sponsored a bill [unofficially] called “Google for Government,” in which you can use an online tool to search for every single dollar of federal spending and know where it has come from and where it’s going and why. So I think bringing that kind of savvy to governing would be effective, as well as just being able to push information out, in terms of social organizing and letting people see what’s really happening.