Can Technology Help Get Out the Youth Vote?

Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu talks about his op-ed that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post, where he explains why candidates are "likely to start using technology ever more inventively" in an effort to reach new and younger voters.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And it's time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Blogs, Podcasts and YouTube are now accepted as tactical tools in elections. Come 2008, argues Tim Wu, candidates may reach even deeper into the virtual bag of tricks. In addition to, say, a formal television debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he suggests we may see candidates duel online with giant battle-axes in the World of Warcraft.

In the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post, he along with Zephyr Teachout, writes that candidates are likely to start using technology ever more inventively in an effort to reach new and younger voters. And, he says, some of it may not be so pretty.

We have a link to his essay at our Web site, the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. And we want to hear from you. How far might this high-tech trend go? Do you want to see virtual campaigns running parallel to the usual stump speeches and follow your candidate's campaign by global-positioning satellites? Give us a call at 800-989-8255 or zap us an e-mail, talk@npr.org.

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School in New York and co-author of Who Controls the Internet? He's with us now from a studio on the campus at Columbia. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. TIM WU (Professor, Columbia Law School; Co-author, Who Controls the Internet?): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And you say YouTube is just the beginning.

Mr. WU: Well yeah. YouTube, obviously, has had an enormous effect on the campaigns this year, but I think that the general trend is that politics is one or two steps, usually, behind where corporations and where technology is going. And so if we look at what's going on in the rest of the online world, we can kind of make some predictions - or some of them are sort of speculations - as to what might be happening the next four years.

CONAN: And one of the things you speculate about is that, while we consider some of the advertising we see on television pretty nasty, it could get, well, downright nastier online.

Mr. WU: You mean that - oh yeah, you mean with the campaigns? Well, you know, one of the things is these virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft are starting to have more people using them than people who watch cable news networks, and politicians not where they want people to be, but where people actually are. And so I could imagine over the next four years, it'll be more and more important to try and get these users who are living in virtual worlds, or spending a lot of time there, exposed to the message.

CONAN: Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia, did have a campaign event -before he pulled out of the race - in Second Life, that virtual world.

Mr. WU: Yeah. That was - he was a little bit ahead of his time. He had this sort of avatar, a virtual version of him, walking around talking to voters. He looked better than he did on the front of New York Times Magazine, and it was, you know, I think something that we may see more of.

Again, it's just because so many people are using these things. I'm not completely sure whether voters will be too excited at first, but you can imagine the possibilities. You can have very exciting rallies where you actually blow things up or, as I said, have actual battles between different campaign followers as opposed to just, you know, holding signs and chanting.

CONAN: And people once thought it undignified for Bill Clinton, for example, to appear on Arsenio Hall, but everybody has beaten that path to the door. And now you see John McCain appearing in a movie, which is a way to - you know, with everybody skipping the ads because they're recording the shows, you know, TV shows, or they're skipping over these advertisements - you say candidates are going to have to, you know, place their product as well as, you know, regular advertisers.

Mr. WU: Yeah. I mean, this is a different trend. You know, regular advertisers have a crisis because people don't watch ads anymore, or decreasing numbers do. Whether it's, as you said, TiVo, or whether it's Netflix, or downloading programs on iTunes - those are all placements themselves, sounds like.

CONAN: Sure, yeah.

Mr. WU: You know, a lot of advertisers are more and more putting their stuff in shows. If you ever watch Home - sorry, Extreme Makeover, that show is one giant product placement, basically. And so, politicians again, tend to follow what corporate advertisers do, a couple of years behind. So one thing we may see is politicians just kind of showing up as cameo appearances in Law and Order, or The Sopranos, or Lost, or whatever show, just kind of there they are, and they'll find a way to reach the voters.

CONAN: Or having their campaign ad on the bus that runs past one of the characters on a show.

Mr. WU: Right. That's the sort of moderate version. You know, back in the old days in television, sometimes there'd be a drama, and people would stop, and they'd say you know, this new detergent really is getting my clothes cleaner, and then they'd go on with the action.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WU: And we may see that one day. I said in the thing, maybe on Lost, suddenly Sawyer is going to say you know, maybe Verizon really should get its cable franchise, and then they look around and then go on. You know, when advertisers have a lot of money, and so do political advertising campaigns -and you imagine at some point they will use that money to try and reach voters any way they can.

CONAN: We're talking with Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page, about well, virtual campaigning, maybe sooner than you think. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is John(ph), John's calling us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

JOHN (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: All right.

JOHN: You know, I was looking at the success that Al Gore has had with his multi-media presentation - you know, to get across his points of global warming - and I thought that multi-media may be the future, you know, way to replace the stump speech, where a politician can get a lot more content out, and then the multi-media could work in any venue. It can work with him in front of an audience, it could work on the Internet, YouTube, and I'd like to see these guys maybe concentrate on that to help get, you know, more content in their messages. I think it could be very successful.

CONAN: Are we going to see - well, Tim Wu, that's a great idea. Obviously, that Al Gore movie, pretty good product placement if he turns out to be a candidate this year, but it started out as a PowerPoint speech. Could we see more candidates adopting that?

Mr. WU: You know, I think the voter makes a really good point, which is, you know, politicians sometimes underestimate voters. And voters, as we've seen from blogging and the Internet, they sometimes want to get to the real content, you know. And some campaigns are just run on such a superficial level, if you have something likeā€¦ You know, Al Gore's campaign for global warming - the thing was that it worked at a lot of different levels. As you know, it had the movie; there was the PowerPoint, you can actually see it; there was Al Gore going around - there was a lot of different levels of content. So whether you just wanted to read about the thing or whether you wanted to get into the science and try and run your own, you know, global-warming models, it was all there for you.

So you know, people talk about going to different mediums. I also think there's more room to going to different depths - for people who are really geeky about this stuff and really want to understand it versus people who want to hear a one-minute version of it. And right now, politicians are often way at the surface, and so that may - that caller makes a great point.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

And let me also ask you: There's another aspect of this that will track politicians on voters' behalf. The politicians aren't the only ones who have access to technology, after all.

Mr. WU: Right. This is the idea of political accountability software. You know, we use software right now to track all kinds of things in our lives, whether it's our hard drives, our cars, our investments. You know, you don't pay attention day to day, but you want to see, roughly, what's going on now and then - and you want an alert if something is really going wrong.

And the idea is that, you know, I think the people are going to start writing -and they already are - writing better software that really is designed to kind of just - something you really don't pay that much attention to, like your House representative or your senator and their voting record and what they're up to - but every once in a while, you can be like, why are they meeting, you know, spending 80 percent of their time meeting with this lobby or that lobby or with health care? What is going on?

And just, you get a very snapshot idea. Because right now, I think our level of information, unless you're a political professional, about what your representative does day to day, is very low. And you know, they're our servants, supposedly, and you know. And just as much as you want to keep track of your dog or your hard drive, you might want to keep track of your House rep and see, you know, what are they really up to? And that is very primitive right now. I mean, basically you rely on what they tell you, and we never do that for anything else.

CONAN: Let's see if we can squeeze one last call in. Kathleen(ph), Kathleen's with us from Paoli in Pennsylvania. We just have a couple of seconds, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Okay. I was just wondering, how much money do you think would be saved, that is currently being wasted on these junk ads?

Mr. WU: Yeah, well, I mean - I'm not in a position of making a guess, but there - you know, there's a lot of ads that are just going out there, and no one's watching them, and so I think - you know, look how cheap blogs can be, and look how effective they are. I think there's a lot smarter ways for candidates to be spending their money. And that's what I think - the next four years - we'll see candidates trying to see whether they can beat, by using technology, a better-funded candidate.

CONAN: But isn't this going to be in addition to as opposed to replacing the television ads that Kathleen and just about everybody else on the planet despises?

Mr. WU: I mean to be - if you want to be optimistic, hopefully it would be used by underdog candidates. But realistically, I do accept that probably, candidates will be cautious and still spending a ton of money spinning ads that nobody's watching - other than, you know, picking them up on YouTube if they're particularly embarrassing.

But you know, that's the way things are. But eventually we should, I think, think that people will move to lower-cost means.

CONAN: Kathleen, interesting question. Thanks very much.

KATHLEEN: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Tim Wu, we appreciate your time today.

Mr. WU: Thank you. It was great being here.

CONAN: Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School in New York, co-author of Who Controls the Internet? We've posted a link to his piece in Sunday's Washington Post at our Web site, npr.org/talk. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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