Live streaming isn’t new to American politics
Dan Pfeiffer puts it well when he describes Meerkat as a platform “no one seems to know how to use…yet.” It’s brand new and may well be offering something that people find applications for, in politics or beyond. But for now descriptions of how Meerkat is going to change the 2016 elections are premature. Pfeiffer’s hype of Meerkat seems to be a bit much to me, particularly given his apparent ignorance of other live streaming platforms from the present and recent past.
For starters, Pfeiffer seems to be unaware that live video streaming technology already exists and has been around with varying degrees of success since before Barack Obama was even nominated by the Democratic Party for President in 2008. UStream and Justin.tv launched in 2007. Qik launched in 2008. YouTube has had live streaming functionality for quite some time too.
These platforms launched before smartphones with decent video cameras were ubiquitous. But they existed and they have been (and are) used quite widely — to broadcast live streams of puppies, of baby bears, of concerts, and yes, American politicians.
In spring 2007 I went to work for Chris Dodd’s presidential campaign. Dodd, at the time a five term Democratic Senator from Connecticut, never got above two or three percent in national polls and exited the race after the Iowa caucus in early January 2008.
Prior to that exit, though, we deployed live video streaming as a core part of our campaign’s engagement with the public. As deputy internet director, I traveled with Dodd on essentially all of his political trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Michigan and other early states. Along the way, I used UStream to live stream anywhere from one to three speeches and Q&A sessions per day.
People following the presidential primary were able to engage in the same dialogue with a candidate as residents of the early states. Using UStream’s embedded chat functionality, as well as monitoring comments on the sites where our streams were embedded, we were able to bring in questions from people across the country into Dodd’s Q&A sessions with voters in New Hampshire and caucus-goers in Iowa.
The technology was simple and easy. A small camcorder hooked up to a laptop and broadcast on UStream. For the best streams we would use an ethernet cable, but the best was rarely possible. Most of our streams were done over wifi or even a Verizon air card. I was able to set up live streams in back yards at house parties in New Hampshire or in greasy spoon diners rural Iowa. At big political forums I was able to run live streams from the press risers alongside CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.
We promoted live streams on Twitter and kept a scroll of recent tweets and streaming feeds on the home page of the campaign’s website.
During the Google & YouTube-hosted debate in South Carolina we even UStreamed senior campaign staff commenting and fact checking what was being said during the course of the debate in real time. According to UStream, that feed have over 10,000 views. Following the debate commentary, I broadcast live from the post-debate spin room while Senator Dodd answered questions from reporters.
Again, this was in 2007.
The Dodd internet campaign, under the leadership of Tim Tagaris, turned our website into a video hub for speaking directly to voters. Tagaris’s vision was to give people greater access to Dodd and the campaign via streaming video — to create “Big Brother” for politics with brand new technology. We built DoddTV — a multi-channel repository for live streams of speeches, saved videos of Dodd talking on key political topics, and interviews with senior campaign staff talking about our work. DoddTV even included a live stream of the Dodd campaign headquarters to watch staff work (naturally we didn’t broadcast sound).
To state the obvious, the Dodd campaign’s innovative use of live streaming technology and public engagement via streaming video did not move the needle an inch in the Democratic presidential primary. Maybe it’s because we were eight years ahead of our time. But more likely it’s because the forces of political sentiment in America are too big to be influenced by one technology platform or one medium of engagement.
I have no clue if Meerkat will revolutionize political engagement during the 2016 cycle and neither does Dan Pfeiffer. Maybe the spread of smartphones with good video cameras and faster data connections will bring live streaming into politics in a bigger way than we did in 2007. Maybe the fact that recording broadcasts for later viewing is actually a really key feature for spreading what happens at political events won’t be relevant to Meerkat’s growth in politics or beyond.
I just hope we can have a discussion of Meerkat that recognizes the technology platforms that came before it, as well as the applications that those platforms were deployed in, before we anoint live streaming as the “new” technology of the 2016 election cycle.