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Joshua Berg highlights civic engagement, influence of Web video in political campaigns

Katie Donnelly

Every year, the Center for Social Media supports selected graduate students at American University in producing research that pertains to the future of public media. One of the past year's students is Joshua Berg, who received an MA in Public Communication from American University in 2009. He now works for PBS Interactive, helping with the inaugural nationwide launch of the Comprehensive Online Video Ecosystem (COVE). He is also currently implementing PBS's first ever monetization plan for locally produced video (which he designed) and serving as the key liaison in the areas of analytics and user support.

In his study, Impact Outside of the Box: Assessing How Digital Video Can Engage and Influence Publics, Berg explores the use of Internet video in political campaigns, examining how this emerging form relates to civic engagement and influence.

Here at the Future of Public Media Project, we are especially interested in the question of measuring impact. Berg writes:

The fundamental question here is one of impact. What impact will the Internet have on civic engagement? On knowledge? To understand the Internet’s degree of impact, we need to understand how impact is conceptualized and measured . . . Impact can be conceived of in terms of increased attention to, or awareness of, a topic. Media may also be thought to impact affect and emotion— by triggering trust or belief in efficacy, amongst other emotions. They can shape, or strengthen, feelings of social or political identity. They can shape attitudes, preferences, and stereotypes. Media can also affect personal and/or collective behavior. Assessing impact should also take into account the "the composition of participants, given the social, economic, political, and ethnic divides of the society.”

Through interviews with nine leaders in the field, including representatives from organizations such as See3 Communications, NARAL Pro Choice America, and truth®, Berg is able to shed some light on these questions. The stakeholders he interviewed discussed the advantages and disadvantages of online video as well as emerging trends and impact measurements. Advantages of online video included: one-on-one visceral appeal, low barriers to entry, the ability to hyperlink, timeshifting, and peer influence. Disadvantages included loss of control and noise. The leaders also mentioned some emerging trends, including shifts in production values and the rise of mobile technologies.

But what is most intriguing to us is: How are these leaders conceptualizing and measuring impact? For some of them, it is simply a matter of number of eyes and ears— the traditional metrics that we're calling reach. But for others, it is more of a matter of influence. Does the project challenge or put the frame on important issues? Does it target "influentials"? Does it demonstrate the "zing" factor that makes it viral or buzzworthy?

For example, Berg refers to the "I Got a Crush . . . on Obama" video:

The low-budget music video, produced by Barely Political, garnered more than 13 million YouTube views— twice as many as any of the campaign’s official videos (Stelter 2009). Shifting the Debate—a website dedicated to tracking the movement of ideas through social networks —ranked “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama” as the third most impactful video of the 2008 election, based on its presence on blogs outside the candidate’s base.

Clearly, "I Got a Crush . . . on Obama" had plenty of "zing" that lead to widespread sharing. However, it didn't target influential figures. Berg notes that in the realm of political campaigning, identifying and serving key supporters (or influentials) is crucial. He refers to Joseph Graf's report, Political Influentials in the 2004 Election, which examined the characteristics of online political movers and shakers. Graf found that “those people who forwarded video were regularly and heavily involved in their communities. They are smarter and more powerful.” His 2007 follow-up, Poli-fluentials: The New Political Kingmakers, supports these findings as well.

Berg notes that other leaders had different goals: raising awareness of a specific concept, or targeting a specific demographic. His interviews with stakeholders indicated that while online videos have enjoyed success in recent years in energizing, informing, and motivating users, "the norms and techniques for measuring their impact are still stabilizing." Berg's piece is an excellent starting point for future researchers, as much additional research will be necessary to fully understand these developing standards.

To learn more about the emerging field of online political video, be sure to read Berg's article here!