The web-hip "community-driven" presidential debates touted by the television networks have been a disappointment so far. The events may use voter-submitted videos, instant messages and e-mails, but all that packet juice is poured into the same old, tired broadcast formula that appoints journalists as the arbiters of which questions candidates are asked -- and relies on the usual small circle of pundits to analyze the answers.
A new effort aims to change all that. Launched Wednesday, 10 Questions is soliciting video questions on four of the most popular video-sharing sites and placing them in a Digg-like tool that lets the public vote them up or down. Ultimately the 10 highest-ranking videos will be submitted unedited to each of the presidential candidates, who can then produce a video response.
"We're hacking into politics, and using interactivity and the power of online video to involve a lot more people in the process," says Micah Sifry, co-founder of TechPresident, an internet-electioneering website and annual conference.
Backed by TechPresident with some help from The New York Times' editorial board, 10 Questions has partnered with top political blogs on the left and right. Sifry hopes that some variation of the community-driven model might be incorporated in the final round of debates between the two major-party candidates in next year's general election.
"The lessons learned could be used in a lot of ways -- the process may be the most important part of this," says Sifry. "We're in the middle of a transition: In the same way we watched what YouTube did, and we watched what MySpace and MTV did, they're going to watch us."
In the CNN-YouTube debate in July, it was CNN producers who chose the online-video questions to present to candidates. Similarly, in the ongoing MySpace and MTV forums, journalists serve as filters between voters and candidates. TechPresident's goal is to provide U.S. voters the leading role in controlling the much-touted national dialogue with the presidential candidates.
The project's organizers are hoping to do that with social software designed to enable "the crowd" to speak responsibly with a collaborative voice. They plan to keep their online voting system simple, and audit the tallied votes.
The point, says Sifry, is to create a large-scale online forum with the same rhetorical attributes that characterize physical town-hall meetings, instead of tweaking a commercial broadcast medium that provides candidates with 30 seconds to advertise their personalities and positions.
The project grew out of a collaboration between TechPresident and David Colarusso, a 28-year-old Somerville, Massachusetts, physics teacher. Colarusso participated in YouTube's Spotlight feature earlier this year.
Spotlight allowed voters to post video questions for the presidential candidates on YouTube. The candidates then picked which questions they wanted to answer, and posted their video responses online. The feature spanned several weeks.
Both Democrat John Edwards and Republican candidate Mitt Romney posted video responses to Colarusso's questions. But Colarusso found the candidates' responses lacking. Both he and other Spotlight participants thought that YouTube should have had a feature that enabled them to express dissatisfaction with a candidate's answer.