Steve Chen: Videos Provide More Political Context

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom sat down for a chat with YouTube co-founder Steve Chen last night to discuss the role of YouTube in politics. In the age of the “Macaca Moment” and the Hillary Clinton “1984” ad, video and YouTube specifically are affecting political campaigns. Chen mostly spoke in broad strokes when discussing his company’s role in the political process, but things got interesting when the conversation turned to context and the ubiquity of video.

One question was from an audience member who wanted to know if Chen felt that YouTube videos made politicians’ comments more in context or out-of-context. Chen said there was “more context with a 30 second video than a two sentence line in print.” He also said that the stuff that goes on before, during or after you watch the video (like comments) helps provide even more context.

The idea of context in last night’s setting was an interesting one. Living in the Bay Area, it’s easy to forget that there is a world of people for whom the simple act of emailing is new, let alone watching a video online. The woman next to me was a retiree originally from the Ukraine. She said when she was growing up, her town had one line connecting it to the outside world. On one end of that line was Moscow, on the other end in her town was a loudspeaker. Talk about bandwidth throttling.

When discussing the “Macaca Moment” of Senator George Allen, Chen talked about the two sides of YouTube: the controlled official side used by the campaigns to post candidate videos and ads, and the user side, with unapproved videos being posted. Chen said it was useful for voters to see more than the on-camera persona of candidates.

Newsom then asked whether the constant presence of video cameras in cell phones and other devices meant that politicians had to always be “on” for fear of being caught in a bad light, and if being “always on” was a beneficial. Chen believed that whether moments were captured on camera and uploaded or written up in a blog post, this always-on nature of media wound up being a good thing for the voters.

Chen also talked about the “YouTube Debates” that happened earlier this presidential season. When asked about future YouTube involvement in the political process he only brought up candidates and users uploading videos, but there was no mention of additional debate participation, indicating that there are no melting snowmen in the cards for future debates.