John McCain, left, and Barack
Obama, center, shake hands with moderator Jim Lehrer at the finish of a
presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford
Friday night, I watched the first Presidential debate with a politically, ethnically, generationally and even linguistically diverse group of people.
No, I wasn't on assignment at Grand Central Station. I was actually sitting in front of my TV with my laptop tuned to Twitter. For the uninitiated, Twitter is what is called microblogging. You can post anything as long as it's no more than 140 characters. You see the Copious Notes Twitter up in right hand corner of this blog. I primarily use it for relaying arts and entertainment news, but lots of people use it to tell their friends what they're doing and what they're thinking. People follow other Twitterers and other Twitterers follow them.
To give credit where it's due, I had not thought of following the debate on Twitter until Thursday morning, when I went to a breakfast given by the Social Media Club of Louisville, and Brendan Jackson of Creative Alliance suggested it was how he had followed the conventions.
To do it, I just went to the Twitter election page and picked from the topics about the debate, designated by people putting a phrase like #debate08 in their posts to be part of specific conversations. At the beginning of the evening two popular ones were #obamashot and #mccainshot suggesting drinking games for the debate, like take a shot each time Obama said, "change," or McCain said, "My Friends." Those threads seemed to tail off a little during the evening -- wonder why?
Anyway as the debate got doing, you got a sense that it was an ideologically diverse group of people in the numerous groups talking about the debate, from hardcore proponents of each candidate who thought the other could do no right to people just watching for entertainment or curiosity.
"Eyes up, Obama," one poster wrote, coaching the candidate from his keyboard.
"McCain is wearing my grandfather's tie," another wrote.
A lot of the early posts were on style points, like heavy makeup on Obama and lines in McCain's granddad tie that looked like they were moving on a lot of TVs, including mine.
As it went on, there were more people weighing in on issues and points mere seconds after they were uttered. Obama supporters were going nuts as he continued to say McCain was right on a number of issues, and viewers were picking up McCain not looking at Obama, though the format was supposed to include direct exchanges between the candidates.
They also picked up on issues such as McCain's declaration that he'd consider freezing the Federal budget. One progressive, who didn't like Obama talking about taking troops into Afghanistan, wrote, "I hate it when Obama tries to be all hawky." Some even tried to spin Twitter, saying it was too pro-Obama, like they were finding the liberal media even in this new media. I thought there were plenty of people speaking up for both candidates.
A number of posters were scoring at home, giving and taking away points for each candidate as the evening progressed, and sharing a final score when it was over.
There was a small presence of spinmeisters from the actual campaigns in the conversations, but it was a really intriguing look at how real people were ingesting and reacting to what they heard and saw, frankly much more interesting than the campaign spokespeople and pundits the networks and cable news nets trotted out after the debate.
There were also conversations you wouldn't hear anywhere else. Like, as I write this, a hot topic is whether McCain uttered a profane phrase describing what horses occasionally leave on the track during the debate. Maybe not terribly substantive, but amusing.
I don't know that I'll watch every debate with a laptop in hand, but it will be tempting to look in and see what the tweets are saying.
Photos above: Top: During a viewing party of the
presidential debate, Shelley Young, left, and
Kelli May, right, react in Sandy
Springs at the Fulton County
Republican Party headquarters, in Atlanta
Of course, others were also keeping up in real time: The New York Times' The Caucus blog has become one of my favorite running campaign chronicles, and they uncorked this gem in the midst of the debate:
What’s the threat from Iran?
Mr. McCain says: “It’s an existential threat to Israel.” They’ve used this phrase before, meaning that it is a threat to Israel’s existence. But they ought to explain it, otherwise it sounds to voters like we’re trying to protect Jean Paul Sartre.
Most political news outlets -- major papers and cable news networks -- had at least a debate blog going.
One approach I didn't get was a live commentary at CNN.com. It was actual commentators talking about the debate as it happened. I stayed with that for about a minute, but seriously, I'm not going to forgo listening to the debate to listen to a running commentary. Reading tweets is one thing, but that was quite another.