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A Pioneer in the Next Brave New MTV World

John Edwards and MTV's SuChin Pak in Durham today. (AP).

Durham, N.H.-- Welcome, prez candidates, to a clickable onlinetocracy.

As John Edwards stood center stage at yesterday's MTV/MySpace presidential forum -- answering questions sent online via instant messages and from an audience of students gathered here at the University of New Hampshire -- viewers on and rated his response at that very moment in a color-coded online graphic. Viewers who approved clicked either "Answered question" or "Understands reality" or "Good ideas." The better the answer, the greener the graph. Those who disapproved clicked either "Dodged question(s)," "Out of touch" or "Wrong ideas." The pinker the graph, the lousier the answer. Pink, bad. Green, good. This prompted some journalists and bloggers backstage to ask, "What, they couldn't pick red or green, black or white?" At times it got a little too tricky.

"Go back to that graph again," a perplexed Edwards said after answering his first question. "How do I read this thing?"

Yesterday's hour-long event was a first: a real-time online poll affected a live dialogue with a presidential candidate. It follows a season of firsts, all prompted by social networking sites where user-generated content is king. The first online video debate, co-sponsored by CNN and YouTube, was held in July. Earlier this month it was the first online "mash-up debate," courtesy of the Huffington Post, Yahoo and Slate.

Cynics can scoff at all these firsts and argue they are nothing but technogical gimmicks. Others argue that all these new media sites (YouTube, MySpace, et al) are bringing newcomers, especially young voters, into the process. As it happens, this week marks the 40th anniversary of the famed Kennedy-Nixon duel -- September 26, 1960 was the day of the first televised presidential debate -- and political observers cite a parallel between the birth of television's impact on presidential politics and what's currently transpiring on the Internet.

"What we're witnessing right now, with this explosion of new tools, with the explosion of the Internet's affect on this campaign, is very reminiscent of the 1960s with the explosion of television," said Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a progressive think tank that studies how technology effects politics.

Added Peter Levine, director for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a non-partisan research center that studies young people's voting trends: "This young generation of potential voters live on MySpace, on Facebook, on many other sites, and they expect a much higher degreee of interactivity. Appearing on TV isn't enough. Now you have be on the Internet, appealing to different people on different sites."

Streamed live on both and -- and aired on MTV Thursday night-- the forum kicked off a series of presidential dialogues. It didn't go without a couple of glitches. Edwards, fresh from what analysts believe was a successful showing at Wednesday's debate at Darmouth College, ran late. The color-coded online graphic confused some viewers, including Joe Trippi, who sat backstage, BlackBerry glued to his hand, as he tried to make sense of the green-and-pink polling. "Green is good, right?" he asked.

Still, the forum proved to be a success, at least to many of the 300 students in the room. Said Bie Aweh, an 18-year-old poli sci major: "This is a great idea. A lot of students are on MySpace. Everyone watches MTV. Seems like a perfect fit to me."

Edwards has more than 47,500 friends on MySpace, way behind Sen. Barack Obama (178,000) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (138,000).

Without a tie, dressed in jeans and a blazer that he later took off, Edwards answered a wide-array of questions from a diverse set of college students. A black student asked if ethnic studies should be better integrated to schools. An Asian student asked about arts education. Education, unsurprisingly, was the top issue -- the former senator touted his plan to make college free for anyone who qualifies for college and promises to work at least 10 hours a week -- followed by questions on Iraq, health care, the environment and stem cell research, The online graph was colored mostly green throughout the event -- sometimes overwhelmingly green -- whether or not Edwards could tell the difference.

--Jose Antonio Vargas

By Washington Post editors  |  September 27, 2007; 8:00 PM ET
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this ends up being a gimmick. sure, they get edwards to clarify answers (but from the looks of it, viewers seemed to be satisfied with what he was saying). the problem comes election day. it's not as easy to go to the poll and cast the ballot as it is to add someone as a friend on myspace. it's not the same thing as going to the capitol to lobby for an issue. in a certain way, this is just watching more reality tv rather than participating in politics. getting eric ("America's Player") to vote out someone on big brother and getting john edwards to talk more about education: two sides of the same coin--you get to WATCH what you want. but you don't necessarily get what you want in the real world.

Posted by: plathman | September 28, 2007 11:01 AM | Report abuse

A lot of students visit myspace daily, thousands at least, and this is a way to get all those people involved in the presidential elections. Many people, especially young, also watch MTV.
It's a very good way for the students to become interested and involved in the elections, and it's also a good way for the candiidates to get feedback about themselves and change the things that the people didn't approve of.

Posted by: blufire_elemental | September 28, 2007 8:25 AM | Report abuse

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