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September 04 2012

13:13

4 Tech, Social Innovations at the RNC -- And One Clever Tweet

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TAMPA, Fla. -- For those who haven't experienced it, a national political convention in America is something like a post-apocalyptic police state crossed with the Super Bowl and an Academy Awards red carpet.

Here at the site of this year's Republican National Convention, bomb-sniffing dogs, Secret Service agents, and a tropical storm all made it hard for people to connect with each other. But social media probably made people feel more connected than ever. Twitter confirmed that more than 4 million tweets were sent during the GOP event -- a one-day record for political conventions.

But we're somewhat past the era during which merely using a social media platform is considered interesting. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare or any number of other platforms or apps, people are using them. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents can agree that they like social media.

Guests in Tampa were immediately greeted by a gigantic sign that boldly stated the official hashtag: #GOP2012. Times have changed since the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign of 2008.

The convention officials themselves were using social media: conducting interviews with media via Skype, monitoring the hashtag. But this is what we have come to expect. It's not particularly interesting.

(Note: Skype is now owned by Microsoft, my employer.)

Innovation in the shadows

Here's what I did notice was standing out a bit at the GOP's big event: collaborations between some unlikely bedfellows, overtly or presumably serving to show both partners in different lights. This took place in what one might call the "shadow convention," the space outside the official proceedings with delegates and votes and state delegation breakfast meetings, where a melange of media and tech companies hold policy briefings, interact with convention VIPs, and underwrite after-hours parties. The shadow convention with its corporate stalwarts got fairly innovative in comparison to the convention proper.

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Here's a rundown of some innovations I saw:

1. CNN had a "CNN Grill" at the convention, as they typically do at large events like the conventions or SXSW. It serves as a combination working space for staff and full-service restaurant. Because you need a special pass to even get into the CNN Grill for one day, it's a popular place to hang out. But CNN was also using social technology in the midst of all the hamburgers and beer. Deploying Skype, they created what they call Delegate Cam, and enabled people following from home to be able to talk to their delegate representative casting their vote inside the security perimeter.

2. Time partnered up with social location service and fellow New York-based company Foursquare on an interactive map that helped conventioneers find each other. I asked Time about why they thought this was an interesting experiment to deploy in Tampa. Time.com managing editor Catherine Sharick told me, "Time partnered with FourSquare for the political conventions in order to help solve a common problem: Where are people and what is happening?" Writing elsewhere, I gave it a "B" for usefulness (if I know where Time writer Mark Halpirin is, what exactly should I do with that information?), but an "A" for creativity.

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3. Mobile short video service Tout collaborated with the Wall Street Journal to launch WSJ Worldstream, an effort by more than 2,000 global reporters who post vetted real-time videos from a special Tout iPhone app. The new video channel was launched in conjunction with the RNC. Reporters posted video interviews with delegates, protesters, and so on. Some of the videos will also be incorporated within longer online written pieces.

4. Microsoft (my employer), for its part, allowed me to use Pinterest to post real-time photos of the behind-the-scenes efforts of my colleagues. That included powering the IT infrastructure of the convention, conducting cyber-security monitoring, running Skype Studios for media and VIPs to conduct HD video interviews, and live-streaming the event on Xbox Live. Interestingly, Pinterest as far as I can tell, was not a popular medium during the GOP convention. I'm not sure if that's significant, but I couldn't easily find many pins from the convention.

Toward the end of the convention, social media watchers knew that the Republicans had a success by the numbers -- millions of tweets and countless uses of the hashtags, photos uploaded, YouTube views of individual speeches, etc. But that's expected now. One thing that was missing? A truly creative use of social media that involved more wittiness than brute force.

One Clever Tweet

There were a couple of clever uses of social media by a prominent politician during the Republican convention. That politician just happens to be a Democrat by the name of Barack Obama.

The most popular tweet during the Republican National Convention wasn't tweeted by a Republican. In a reference to the now-infamous Clint Eastwood "talking to an empty chair" speech, Obama's account tweeted three simple words: "This chair's taken." It was retweeted more than 50,000 times and favorited more than 20,000 times. More importantly, it's smart, it's art, and it's memorable.

This seat's taken. OFA.BO/c2gbfi, twitter.com/BarackObama/st...

— Barack Obama (@barackobama) August 31, 2012

Obama also hopped on the somewhat-edgy, somewhat-underground "front page of the Internet" Reddit to do something Redditors (as they're dubbed) call "Ask Me Anything." In a half-hour chat, the president took on all comers in a broad Q&A.

Heading into the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., I'm curious to see how it compares. I'll be Pinteresting, CNN will be Skyping while they're grilling, and the WSJ will be posting short videos. What'll be the surprise there, if anything?

Mark Drapeau is the the director of innovative engagement for Microsoft's public and civic sector business headquartered in D.C. He tweets @cheeky_geeky.

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August 29 2012

18:14

PBS NewsHour’s viewers are translating its videos into 52 languages (and counting)

Ever try watching Sesame Street in Turkish, or Hindi? Big Bird has made his way to 150 countries, and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

Now, PBS NewsHour is working to follow the bird and push some of its newsier content to global audiences. Partnering with the translation platform Amara, the show is crowdsourcing an effort to add subtitles to politics-themed videos, including moments from the U.S. presidential campaigns and short man-on-the-street interviews with American voters.

So, for example, now you can watch a video of President Barack Obama talking about a new immigration policy with subtitles in Vietnamese; or the Ukrainian version of Mitt Romney announcing Paul Ryan as his running mate. (Amara, formerly known as Universal Subtitles, is also involved in projects to crowdsource captioning for Netflix films and TED talks.) Since January, PBS NewsHour has built up a community of hundreds of dedicated volunteer translators across the world, and videos have been translated into 52 languages.

Because translations are done at the whim of volunteers, the outcome is unpredictable for any given video. As of this writing, for example, Ann Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention was available in English, French, and…Georgian, a language that has millions of speakers but isn’t usually the first that comes up among translation projects in the United States.

Generally, Obama gets more attention from translators than Romney. (It’s understandable that a sitting president would draw more attention than his as-yet-unelected rival.) Some languages are more popular than others. One volunteer in Indonesia is particularly active, which means that many videos have Indonesian subtitles.

“The most frequent languages besides English are Spanish, French, Indonesian, Chinese, and Korean,” Joshua Barajas, a production assistant at PBS NewsHour who handles communications with the volunteer translators, told me. Arabic and Turkish aren’t too far behind.

And what about quality control, a question that comes up in just about any crowdsourced project? It can be particularly difficult — if not downright impossible — to keep tabs on volunteers who are submitting work in a language you don’t understand.

“There has been one incident,” involving a captioner who inserted some foul language, Barajas said. “One troll. We quickly got rid of it. For the most part, it’s been pretty polite.”

And that’s because the volunteers who are involved are really, really involved. If they see something that’s not right — more often a technological bug or minor translation error than inappropriate conduct — they’re quick to notify the team at PBS, Barajas said.

Running parallel to these videos is a translation effort for a series called Listen to Me. PBS NewsHour has been collecting short interviews with people from around the country based on three questions: What’s the most important issue to you during this election? Are you hopeful about the future? Do you think the political system is broken? (For now, PBS affiliates have been shooting and submitting footage, but NewsHour plans to let people submit their own videos, too.)

There have been a few kinks to work out on the production side. A syncing issue with subtitles has since been resolved. Quite a few translations get started but not finished. (The video of Romney introducing Ryan lists 17 languages, but only six are complete; Bengali, Korean, Portuguese, Swahili, and Turkish are all less than 10 percent done.) And PBS NewsHour wants to build a more reliable language mix; they hope to partner with language classes at universities to achieve this.

But the biggest challenge is impact: how to measure it, yes, but mostly how to make a difference in the first place.

The core idea behind the translation project is that “everyone should have access to the political conversation regardless of the language they speak or their ability to hear,” Barajas said. But how do you let people know that these translations are available to them?

This is an issue that all newsrooms confront: What good is a great story — in any language — if you don’t have an audience ready to consume it? But most newsrooms aren’t trying to reach a divided global audience in dozens of languages.

“As of right now, we’re limited in gauging the translations’ reach,” Barajas said in a follow-up email. “We look at YouTube views and the growth of the Amara community for some insight, but these are limiting benchmarks of course.”

Still, NewsHour deserves credit for taking on a translation project of this scope. (Even a newspaper that simply directs its readers to Google Translate is going farther than most English language news outlets in the United States.) Ultimately, it appears what PBS NewsHour is really doing is community building.

“People are just excited because they feel like they want to be a part of something, and they feel like they’re contributing,” Barajas said. “They’re able to catch the nuances that otherwise would have been, well, lost in translation.”

August 17 2012

17:55

Study: In the Digital Race for President, Obama Has a Clear Lead

If an election outcome rested on how well a campaign does with Twitter, then President Barack Obama's camp would be focused not on November 2012 but January 2013. Not only is the Obama campaign out-tweeting the Mitt Romney team, but the Obama tweets are being shared at a rate of 17-to-1 compared with Romney's.

The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed the digital activity of the two campaigns over a two-week period in June. The report shows that there is a "digital gap" between the presumed Republican and Democratic candidates for president, just as there was between Obama and John McCain in 2008.

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Project for Excellence in Journalism, August 2012

The report reviews candidate activity across a mature set of digital platforms: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube plus the campaign websites. In June, the Obama campaign had a presence on nine social media platforms: Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, Spotify, Twitter (@barackobama plus five others), Tumblr and YouTube. The Romney campaign had public accounts on only five: Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Twitter and YouTube; it has subsequently added Tumblr and Spotify, according to the report.

A digital legacy

Obama established a broad digital presence in 2008 and has maintained it throughout his presidency. Thus it is not surprising that his digital support dwarfs Romney's.

For example, on Facebook, today the Obama's campaign page has almost 28 million likes versus 4.5 million for Romney's campaign. On Twitter, @BarackObama has 18.6 million followers; @MittRomney has 863,000. On YouTube, Obama has 210,000 subscribers (214 million views) whereas Romney has almost 15,000 subscribers (18 million views).

The Obama campaign is not only active in more spaces, it's more active, period. Across the platforms analyzed in this report, the Obama campaign posted almost four times as much content as the Romney campaign: There were 614 Obama posts in the two-week period but only 168 posts by Romney.

A Twitter gap

This gap was most evident on Twitter, where @BarackObama averaged 17 tweets per day and @MittRomney averaged one tweet per day. On Facebook, the campaigns are neck-and-neck. The Obama campaign produces more videos for YouTube and more content for the website blog than the Romney campaign.

Analysis of both accounts using Seattle-based Tweetstats makes the point about the Twitter gap visually.

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TweetStats, August 16, 2012

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TweetStats for Mitt Romney

Content

But what do the campaigns talk about in these spaces? And to whom?

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Both campaigns were focused on the economy in June, with 1-in-4 Romney postings and 1-in-5 Obama postings discussing the subject.

What differed was the approach.

Romney's campaign made twice as many posts focused on jobs as Obama. Reflecting the cerebral candidate that he is, Obama's campaign spent just as much time talking about "broader economic policy issues such as the need to invest in the middle class and how the election presents a choice between two economic visions."

Here are two tweets that illustrate the difference.

Barack Obama, August 14: "I don't believe in an economy from the top down. I believe that the economy grows from the middle class out, and from the bottom up."

Mitt Romney, August 12: "If your priority is creating more jobs and putting more people to work, that's what we know how to do. #RomneyRyan2012"

Not surprisingly, the challenger was more than twice as likely to mention the incumbent than the other way around. In June, Romney's campaign devoted about a third of its posts to Obama, "largely attacking him for a policy stance or action." The Obama campaign mentioned Romney half as much.

Wordle, a tool used to visualize how frequently words appear in a text, starkly shows this difference.

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Wordle, 78 Mitt Romney Tweets (June 8 - August 16)

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Wordle, 89 Obama Tweets (August 14-16)

Also, the Romney campaign is much more likely to communicate with an image or a video than the Obama campaign, making an emotional appeal versus a rational appeal.

But in the public spaces -- YouTube, Twitter and Facebook -- neither campaign goes out of its way to actually talk with citizens.

The report notes that is rare for either candidate to "reply to, comment on or retweet something from a citizen." Although if it is going to happen, the odds are that it will be the Obama campaign.

In its analysis of June tweets, the report shows that only 16% of @barackobama tweets were retweets. Most of those were campaign related; only 3% of all tweets were "retweets of citizen posts." During the two-week analysis, the Romney camp had one retweet.

TweetStats reveals that the June pattern is the norm for both campaigns. Over the lifetime of the two Twitter accounts, @barackobama shows 14% retweets and @mittromney shows 2%.

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The campaigns may not interact with voters, but they regularly issue calls for action, with "about half of each candidate's posts [including] a request for some kind of voter follow-up activity."

"These calls to action were most common on the website blog posts. Every single blog post from the Obama campaign during the time studied included some call to action, as did 91% of his YouTube posts. Most, 81%, of Romney's homepage content and 40% of his YouTube video posts had calls to action as well. Twitter was the platform least likely to contain a call to action," according to the Pew report.

"For Obama, the primary call to action most often (51% of the time) was a request for some kind of digital-oriented response, such as watch this video, join this list or sign up to be part of a 'team,'" the report said. "For Romney the request that appeared first most often (31% of the time), was to donate money. These tended to appear in the form of a donate button."

Some of those calls for action include "share this post."

The most popular platform for engagement turns out to be Facebook, not Twitter.

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Project for Excellence In Journalism, August 2012

Likes and dislikes

The Pew researchers recorded the likes and dislikes (where appropriate), comments, retweets and views for up to 48 hours after posting. The Obama campaign posts on Facebook generated more than 1,100,000 likes. The Romney campaign generated about 635,000 likes, about half as many.

But the Obama campaign posts more often than the Romney campaign, so average likes per post is an important metric. Obama Facebook posts had an average of 2,938 comments per post versus an average of 1,941 for Romney's.

The Obama campaign had more than 150,000 retweets during this two-week period. Romney, on the other hand, had almost 8,600 retweets. However, on Twitter the ratio between the two campaigns matches: 17-to-1 total tweets, 17-to-1 retweets.

And the Obama campaign YouTube videos averaged 466 likes per video compared with 253 per video for the Romney campaign.

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In comparing the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, the Pew researchers ignore Twitter, saying that it "was not in the mix in 2008." That is not the case.

John Edwards was the first presidential candidate to embrace Twitter. Barack Obama sent his first tweet in 2007:

"Thinking we're only one signature away from ending the war in Iraq. Learn more at http://www.barackobama.com 12:04 PM Apr 29th, 2007 from web"

On August 10, 2008, the Obama campaign used Twitter to invite supporters to be among the first to know the pick for vice president. Announcements were made by text and email.

By the end of the campaign, Obama's presence in the emerging network was phenomenal, and 165,000 people had signed up for one-way political advertisements.

It may be hard to believe, but in 2008 YouTube was also a new platform for political communication. YouTube gives candidates the opportunity to share longer messages than financially possible on television. And like Facebook and Twitter, it encourages sharing.

All campaigns want their videos to "go viral," to be shared quickly and widely.

In the two-week period, the researchers report than no video went viral. Videos for both campaigns averaged about 40,000 views within 48 hours of posting. But the most popular video wasn't campaign-related but human-related: it was Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama's Father's Day card. Its metrics: 2,265 Facebook shares in the first 48 hours and 211,663 YouTube views.

The History and the Future

Political digital campaigning truly got its start with the Howard Dean campaign in 2004. Ron Paul's supporters demonstrated the potential of the medium for fundraising when they contributed more than $4.2 million on November 5, 2007; Paul was polling in the single digits at the time.

But just as Harry Truman was the first president to make a coast-to-coast address on television in 1951, it wasn't until the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 that the medium had an impact on political communication. Those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won; those who watched on television picked Kennedy. Kennedy went on to win the contest, and "more than half of all voters reported that the Great Debates had influenced their opinion; 6% reported that their vote was the result of the debates alone."

We'll not know for a while whether a similar watershed moment for digital political communication came during the Dean, Paul or Obama (first) run for president. But there is no doubt that a generation immersed in digital communication technologies will turn to these tools to learn about candidates and issues. And not just turn to them first; eventually, they'll turn to them only.

Kathy Gill has been online since the early 1990s, having discovered CompuServe before Marc Andreessen launched Mosaic at the University of Illinois in 1993. In 1995, she built and ran one of the first political candidate websites in Washington state. Gill then rode the dot-com boom as a communication consultant who could speak web, until the crash. In 2001, she began her fourth career as a full-time academic, first teaching techies about communications and now teaching communicators about technology. At the University of Washington, she teaches undergraduate digital journalism as well as classes in the Master of Communication in Digital Media program. For almost five years, she covered politics for About.com; for three years, she covered agriculture.

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