YouTube, Obama, and the Revival of Rhetoric

In recent weeks, much has been made about Obama releasing his first weekly address on YouTube. While I was glad to see Obama continuing to push traditional aspects of governing into new media realms, I was not that surprised to see him using YouTube. YouTube had been a key platform throughout his campaign, through both videos he released and an uncountable library of videos created by his supporters. It seemed obvious that he would continue to have a presence in the online video space after the election.

Obama, after all, was made for YouTube. He is a brilliant public speaker who comes off as composed and thoughtful in front of the camera and has the rare ability to translate the passion and energy that he presents live on stage into the more intimate setting of online video.

What I do think is worth noting about Obama’s use of YouTube is not that he is there, but instead, the number of people who are seeking him out there. The number of people that have watched Obama’s speeches online is staggering. His forty minute speech on race has more than 5.5 million views, his fifteen minute speeches from the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries have logged over 2 million views each and his victory speech in Chicago has been watched nearly 4 million times in just under a month.

At a time when attention spans are eroding and mainstream media fill their 24 hour news cycle with flashy gimmicks and piecemeal sound bites, there is a revival of oratory and rhetoric quietly gaining steam thanks to online video sites like YouTube.

This notion seems to go against everything we think of when we think of YouTube. Indeed, Chad Hurley – the founder of YouTube – has said that his site is creating a “clip culture” in which the average length of videos viewed on YouTube hovers around two and a half minutes. However, I want to argue that while it may not represent the majority of online viewers, video sites like YouTube are creating a space where the long maligned art of rhetoric is gaining new audiences.

For nearly the last century a speaker’s ability to be heard was shaped entirely by the media’s willingness to give them airtime. Few people were given the space on radio and TV to do long-form speeches, and instead had to suffer with their talks being split up into sound bites and summarized in headlines. Prior to that, speeches were a primarily local phenomenon in which your audience was entirely made up of those who were close enough to hear you in person.

Online sites that allow people to upload their own videos, and allow that video to be delivered on-demand at the viewer’s convenience have radically shifted the delivery of speeches and shifted the relationship between orator and listener. Importantly, these video sites allow speeches to be watched over and over again, and foster spin-offs, remixes, and responses. Sometimes these follow up videos gain more attention than the original, thereby utterly changing the way we view the original product. So, not only do listeners now control the delivery of oratory, but they can also take part in the (re)creation of the speech itself.

Obama could have bought into the clip culture. However, he has resisted the temptation to boil down his messages to two and a half minute micro videos, and clearly this has not dissuaded his viewers. Indeed, I believe that people are tired of the shallowness of so much of our modern political discourse and are hungry for this kind of long-form argument in which ideas are developed thoughtfully over time.

Obama is just one example of the renewed interest in rhetoric, speeches, and oration. Perhaps this trend was catalyzed by the success and popularity of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. Who would have thought that a two hour powerpoint presentation and lecture could have captured the imagination of so many people, earning him an Oscar and a Noble Prize. Other long-form videos that have captured people’s attention and sparked a renewed enthusiasm for speeches include videos by Larry Lessig and the series of lectures coming out of the TED conference.

This shifting relationship between orator and audience, is due in part to a larger shift in technology. In his article “Becoming Screen Literate” Kevin Kelly explores how technology has shifted from an emphasis on the spoken word, to the written word, and now back to the spoken word transmitted on the ubiquitous screens that have filled our lives. He writes:

“When technology shifts, it bends the culture. Once, long ago, culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of memorization, recitation and rhetoric instilled in societies a reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective. Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology. Gutenberg’s invention of metallic movable type elevated writing into a central position in the culture. By the means of cheap and perfect copies, text became the engine of change and the foundation of stability. From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics of libraries and law. The distribution-and-display device that we call printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book. In the West, we became people of the book.

Now invention is again overthrowing the dominant media. A new distribution-and-display technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images, and especially moving images, to the center of the culture. We are becoming people of the screen. The fluid and fleeting symbols on a screen pull us away from the classical notions of monumental authors and authority. On the screen, the subjective again trumps the objective. The past is a rush of data streams cut and rearranged into a new mashup, while truth is something you assemble yourself on your own screen as you jump from link to link. We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift — from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.”

If, as Kelly suggests, shifts in communication technology have a profound impact on culture then what do we make of the renewed interest in rhetoric? For Kelly, the shift to screen ubiquity has resulted primarily a “rush of data” in which truth is up for the making. Many authors have focused on this aspect of these new media tools, but to do so ignores other important implications of these new forms of distribution. Where online video and cheap video editing and production tools may empower people to assemble new truths from the snipits of other images, it also allows people the leisure and flexibility to watch, contemplate, and participate in thorough examinations of a topic on their own schedule. Sites like YouTube allow people to enjoy the fullness of language, to study it, and to respond to it as never before.

And so we return to Barack Obama, whose campaign illustrates both sides of this argument. On the one hand we have his “Yes We Can” speech, delivered in Nashua, New Hampshire on the day of the state primary. With over 2 million views this became one of his most discussed speeches and launched a key theme of his campaign. On the other hand, we have the “Yes We Can” mashup in which artists and actors create a song out of the words of Obama’s speech, and intersperse their voices and images with the footage of his speech (which was seen more than 6 million times on YouTube). Online video has made a new space for rhetoric and remix to not only exist side by side, but to speak to one another. The result is a renewed interest in the power of language and a new hopefulness for democratic dialogue.

1 Comment

  1. Aaron Todd says:

    Well said Josh. And all that you’ve said about Obama also applies to San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who didn’t believe that one hour would be enough for his State of the City Address. He broke it up into 10 key issues, with a 45-minute speech to discuss each, all posted online. You can read about it here …

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