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Yes They Can – but So What? Media Technology and the Inauguration

Barack Obama has made it as clear as a 1080p high-definition image that he intends to be the Digital President. He used online fundraising, Facebook, text messages and YouTube to get elected, and he has an ambitious agenda that calls on technology to create jobs, clean up the environment and bring transparency to government.

So why shouldn’t the media — traditional and new — break out all the digital bells and whistles at their disposal to help bring you the first draft of history regarding Obama’s Tuesday inauguration? From satellites to social networks to streaming video — from Twitter to 3-D — the major broadcast and online news organizations booted up technology to enhance their storytelling.

In some instances, that first draft of history was a very rough draft indeed; the intense interest in the event clogged the Internets right around the time Obama placed his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, raising new questions about whether streaming media was ready for prime time. In other instances, the gadgets seemed more gratuitous than gripping. But there were also some cases where interesting applications and mashups may have given us all a peek into the future of newsgathering.

One network in particular covered both ends of the good and not-so-good high-tech spectrum during the 2008 campaign; should we have expected anything different on Tuesday from CNN?

2-D Facebook and 3-D Photography

The cable network that introduced satellite technology to rewrite the book on international broadcast journalism went back to its roots Tuesday, thanks to GeoEye. The Dulles, Va.-based satellite imagery company has some of the most sophisticated high-resolution cameras in orbit, and by the middle of this year will be providing images for Google Earth and Google Maps. You can also look for its imagery in the new Tom Clancy video game.

CEO Matt O’Connell has done a very good job repositioning the company as more of an information services provider than a hardware firm, and the photos it shot for CNN of the crowds jamming the Washington D.C. Mall area were good examples. Anchor John King trumpeted the photos as the “quickest turnaround for non-military purposes of satellite photos” and they did indeed help bring the scale of Tuesday’s event into focus, especially when contrasted with shots taken on Dec. 19 of a Mall largely devoid of people.

CNN also helped Microsoft highlight its Photosynth technology, which allows for 3-D manipulation of two-dimensional photographic images. For several days before the inauguration, networks anchors told those who would be attending the event to take pictures of the very moment Obama took the oath of office and to send them to, where they would be compiled into “The Moment” photo montage via Photosynth.

Here’s the problem with both the GeoEye satellite photos and Photosynth: They certainly were had-to-be-there experiences, as long as “there” was your computer. On a compatible PC or Mac, the Photosynth app kills; on TV, “The Moment” was more of a “meh” moment, despite King once again showing his mastery of a touchscreen on steroids (this one provided by Perceptive Pixel.) Yeah, it’s kind of cool to finger-flick from a photo of Obama on the dais to John Cusack in the crowd to Oprah Winfrey elsewhere in the crowd, but audiences raised on “CSI” software fantasies weren’t likely to be overwhelmed by 2-D turned into 3-D turned back into 2-D on your TV, even if your TV is HD. (Don’t OD on this, OK?) Same thing with the GeoEye photos; impressive as they are, the crowds still looked like smudges on those in-studio touchscreens.

For all the digital dollars spent by CNN, the network seemed to score more points with its video/Facebook mashup. At least, most of my Facebook friends thought so, and not just the ones who still work at CNN. Clicking on a link gave you a double-window, with live video on one side and a scrolling stream of Facebook status updates on the other. No expensive special imagery and certainly no value-added journalistic insight, just real-time reactions from all over the world to the history being made in Washington. That stream Included this piece of layman’s criticism: a person “wondering why the anchors on CNN on the TV are so much more interesting and articulate than what I’m seeing on the Facebook streaming.”

I believe it was the original owner of the Bible used for Obama’s swearing-in who said something about the challenges in trying to please all the people all of the time. If anything, the Facebook feed provided audience participation for those who couldn’t make it in person to what may be one of the key news events of their lifetime.

Inauguration Watchers All a-Twitter

Hashtags were flying throughout cyberspace and on television, as Twitter again showed its potential for becoming a omnipresent digital vox populi. CNN had several Twitter feeds running, as did Fox News and others. As you might expect, Current TV, the user-generated media company cofounded by Al Gore, had the most entertaining use of onscreen Tweets during Obama’s inaugural speech. If you ignored the obligatory and occasionally profane Bush-bashing from the network’s young demographic, you found a few nuggets: “Obama could read the menu at McDonald’s and it would inspire people;” “As much as I don’t like Obama I’ve got to give him credit for his foreign policy stance. He gets it.”

AOL Twittered the inauguration while warning users that “due to high Twitter usage, the modules below may appear as a black box. If so, just refresh the page or try our low-bandwidth Twitter page.” (The Twitter Blog said the service experienced four times as many Tweets per second than usual around the swearing-in peak). When the AOL service worked, it mostly gave a running tally of boos and cheers for those appearing on the dais. But an AOL Tweet highlighted a potential inaugural side story, as well as showing off the new journalism enabled by social networks that doesn’t wait for double-sourced confirmations: “Rumor in the line is that people got in with forged tickets and people with legit ones are getting screwed. Unconfirmed.”

Live Blogs and Streams — of Video and People

The broadcast networks all simulcast their network feeds on their Web sites, hoping to satisfy the needs of office workers who wanted their own glimpse of history in the making. But even in the hour preceding peak viewing — the swearing-in and Obama’s speech — getting a clean stream at, and proved problematic. (The Audi commercials pre-rolling on all three network Web sites before the Web coverage all seemed to run just fine, thank you.) had to put people logging on to their streaming coverage in a “waiting room.”

Although the inaugural was not the most watched Internet event ever, according to Web content delivery company Akamai, it ranked up there. “With inauguration occurring during work day hours in the U.S., we witnessed record numbers of live streams in support of many leading news businesses,” an Akamai executive said. “It is now clear that this event has driven unprecedented demand from a global online audience.”

If media companies are going to get serious about their Web strategies, and rake in those online ad dollars, a review of what went right and wrong, and a second look at infrastructure and content, is necessary. Give me something different than what’s on your TV network, folks. Some of the Web-exclusive content went beyond the usual celebrity-spotting; Fox News’ “Strategy Room” had a spirited discussion in the hour leading up to the swearing-in, featuring Sirius/XM satellite radio host David Webb and others debating Obama’s “blackness.”

For all the diversity of content found online, the growth of streaming video consumption and the rise of social networks as news sources, I still thought that this major event was best delivered and consumed via television — and high-definition TV in particular. The sight of all those people on the Mall was certainly awe-inspiring, but switching back and forth from 480p to 1080i on a large-screen TV was like making the jump from impulse power to warp speed. The scale of the story comes into better focus; history in crystalline clarity on a chilly but bright January day in 2009.

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