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Obama and the Decline of the Soundbite

To this point, Obama's big speech on race yesterday is getting widespread praise for its unexpected honesty and candor. Watching MSNBC, I heard it called unprecedented and brilliant, and was actually compared to Martin Lugher King's "I Have a Dream" address.

If you do a quick survey online (and ignore The Corner) the criticism, such as it is, boils down to one simple thing -- the speech was too long. It offered too many opportunities for negative soundbites. In fact, as I was watching the speech, one of the very first headlines that MSNBC put up read:

Obama: Racial anger is "real"

But that only remains true if the one way that people hear the words of Obama's speech is in a 20-second clip. The thus-far remarkable thing about this election is that it no longer has to be that way.

The campaign put the video of the entire speech on YouTube before lunch. Twenty-four hours after Obama walked off the stage in Philadelphia, this 37-minute address has already been viewed more than 1,000,000 times. As I write this post, 20 additional people are watching the speech, it's currently the "most-viewed video" at YouTube. 'd bet my lunch that another 1,000,000 people will watch this speech before the week is out.

The New York Times posted a transcript of the speech in full online, and by 3:00, it was among most popular stories on the website. Formatted for the web, Obama's remarks spill over seven pages, but the article has already been emailed and shared by thousands of NYT readers.

And the web isn't the only nontraditional outlet for the speech either. Minutes after Obama walked off stage, I got a call from a college buddy who was driving through Richmond on the way to North Carolina. He was flipping through the radio dial, heard the speech, and stopped to listen. As soon as Obama wrapped up, a DJ cut in to explain why the station had stopped playing music to carry the speech live. My buddy thought he was listening to NPR, but it turns out this was a local hip-hop station.

I'm sure millions of people watched clips from Obama's remarks on the network evening news. But millions more are experiencing the speech outside the mainstream media. They're reading, watching, and listening to this speech in full, then discussing it and sharing it. The evening news is still important, and the cable shows still matter. But the filters are no doubt becoming less important, and that in turn means that the soundbite might lose some of its stranglehold on political communications.

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Will the new technology matter as much for other speakers and other speeches?

I can't really imagine a speech by Senator McCain or Senator Clinton that I'd watch from start to finish.

Nor can I imagine another speech by Senator Obama that I'd watch in silence, start to finish, without multitasking or side comments to other family members.

Yesterday's record may be a lasting one, because technology intersected with a pivotal issue, a dramatic moment in the campaign, and an unusually gifted orator.

That's a fair enough point, but the statistics show that this isn't simply due to the historic nature of this speech.

Barack Obama's channel on YouTube gets something like 29 million viewers a day. Each video he puts up gets viewed by thousands of people. For sure, none has been as popular as 'A More Perfect Union' but Obama's speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church has been viewed by more than 700,000 people. His victory speech in South Carolina has been viewed by more than half a million. That's extraordinary.

Hillary Clinton's strategy on YouTube has been somewhat different -- most of her videos run less than 3 minutes, and even her election night speeches are generally shorter than Obama's. But her channel on YouTube still draws more than 10 million viewers a day. In the context of recent history, that too is remarkable.

For the most part, McCain doesn't draw the same sort of attention online, but his campaign hasn't exactly embraced flash video. There's nothing that indicates a remarkable speech from him wouldn't draw in thousands of viewers.

The point is that there are outlets for speeches now -- speeches in their entirety -- that don't exist in a politics dominated by television.

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