Gee, These Newfangled Webcast Thingies Are a Lot Like the Old-Fashioned TV Debates, Only a Little Duller

John Edwards may have put old-fashioned populism at the heart of his message, but, of all the 2008 candidates for president, he's probably proven himself the most comfortable with the new-fangled medium of online campaigning. He typically leads left-wing blog straw polls and has even built an in-house online community--complete with social network, user blogs and heated message board debates--that's largely modeled on DailyKos, the massive progressive hub. Thursday afternoon he further burnished his Netroots credentials by becoming the first presidential candidate to participate in an MTV/Myspace dialogue--a sort of live "town hall" Webcast that allowed online viewers (plus an audience of University of New Hampshire students) to ask questions in real time and then vote on Edwards's answers.

So how did he do? Well enough--not that it was much of a challenge. MySpace and MTV promoted the event, which is the first in a series scheduled to include nearly all of the Democratic and Republican contenders, as a more "up-close" and "all-access" forum than usual. "[I]f you have tough questions or have that one question you always wished someone would ask, now's your chance!," they said. Um, not so much. Progressing in a polite, orderly manner through a series of pre-selected topics--education, Hurricane Katrina, Iraq, Health Care and Environment--the questions, most of which were posed live by students (and selected by MTV correspondents Suchin Pak and Gideon Yago), were pretty non-confrontational. "What are you planning to do to make education more affordable for everyone?" asked Matt, a junior at UNH. "What would you have done differently in the aftermath of Katrina?" asked Kelsey, another UNH student. "How are you planning to get our troops out of Iraq?" asked Colleen. Edwards responded to these simple, straightforward requests for his policy positions by, you know, repeating his policy positions--meaning that much of today's "dialogue" ended up sounding like a stump speech. Scintillating.

Co-moderator Chris Cillizza, the political blogger at the Washington Post (owned by The Washington Post Company, as is NEWSWEEK), did a little better culling interesting queries from the messages sent via MySpace IM (topics included whether Edwards would raise taxes to pay for his programs and what he thought about foreclosures on New Orleans homeowners, considering he once invested in a private-equity fund responsible for such suits).

But overall I got the sense that Edwards--who was coming off a feisty performance at Wednesday night's televised debate--was itching to throw some punches. He would repeatedly pivot off a tame question--usually with a phrase like "The other candidates might disagree" or "You know, I'm the only one who's willing to say this"--to highlight the differences between him, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Sure, it's not like this was the first time Edwards criticized Clinton for giving lobbyists a "seat at the table" on health care, for example. Still, it was good to see him spicing up the show--even when his questioners weren't giving him much of an opportunity.

That said, not much of this matters. The MySpace/MTV dialogues aren't Meet the Press, and young, internet-savvy voters aren't Tim Russert. Who cares if cynical journalists like me were bored? Nearly all of the questions were personal--a black student asking about curriculum diversity, a student with a degenerative eye condition asking about stem-cell research, a student with a cousin in Iraq asking about withdrawal. You don't get that on MSNBC. What's more, according to the live poll results provided by Flektor, 84 percent of viewers approved of Edwards's answers at the event's halfway mark. By the end, he'd won over a whopping 94 percent. The Edwards campaign waded into the world of MTV and MySpace to appeal to a new audience (and get some positive press coverage); the audience tuned in to learn more about Edwards. Mission accomplished all around--even if it wasn't exactly mission impossible.

A few more things to consider:

1. Viewership. Online events need to draw a significant audience to approach television broadcasts in terms of relevance and reach. Until then, they're small potatoes. I've asked MySpace for numbers and will post as soon as I hear back.

2. Tone. Questioned on Darfur, Edwards started his answer by asking the audience, "Do you know about the situation in Sudan?" He actually did this a bunch--assuming that the young viewers knew less about the issues than the typical voter. Future candidates should be careful. "Didn't you think he was kind of condescending?" said a 24-year old friend who also watched the webcast. "It was like, he knew it was kids, so he kept defining things for them." There's nothing that young voters like less than being talked down to--even if they're not well informed. Just assume they are and get on with it.

3. ADD. Generation Y is the multitasking generation. We're easily distracted -- especially when we're at our laptops. "Having computer on lap made me focus less than if I were watching it on TV," says my correspondent, who would switch over to IM or iTunes or other sites while listening to Edwards in the background. "I found it hard to pay attention." Even if events like these get a lot of eyeballs, they might not make much of an impact.