Sometimes I don't know whether I should envy Americans, or back slowly away from them, whistling softly.
Lately, I've been gawping over YouTube footage of increasingly angry McCain/Palin rallies. One blogger stalked around a parking lot, sticking his camera in people's faces and asking whether they thought U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama is a terrorist. A remarkable number seemed willing to countenance it. "He's got the bloodlines ... think about it," one woman said. It was like raw footage from a National Geographic shoot, catching racists in their natural habitat. It's compelling stuff.
Why don't we get viral videos like that here? The election that we just muddled through has left me feeling a bit provincial. To listen to the hype, it was supposed to have been the shining moment of Canadian new media. This was going to be the YouTube election, the one in which viral video would capture defining moments the way it has in American campaigns past and present.
It didn't. In fact, during the whole campaign, exactly one video came to me the way viral media is supposed to - in the form of someone nudging me and saying, "look at this!" It was Michel Rivard's Culture en Péril video, the clever, funny, faintly anglophobic clip where a Quebec singer applies for federal funding for a tour and gets in trouble when English-speaking bureaucrats hear him sing about seals. The play on the word phoque rang a bell for anyone raised in French immersion; as I recall, the seal/ phoque pun was more or less our only amusement in Grades 4 through 9. It may well have struck a chord with Quebeckers, too, who subsequently declined to rush into Stephen Harper's sweatery embrace.
There were other hints of success. Sandford Borins, a professor at the University of Toronto who kept a close eye on the online campaign, points out that YouTube views for the party's ads were "at least respectable," and that some embarrassing moments gained online traction, including Stéphane Dion's awkward CTV interview.
Borins observes that YouTube tends to be used in three ways when it comes to politics: as an outlet for campaign ads, as a forum for user-created tributes, and as a place where gaffes can be replayed endlessly.
Indeed, the most salient impact the Web had in the Canadian election was as a way for parties to discover exactly how unsavoury their local candidates really were, usually, alas, at the same time as the rest of the country did, too.
But all of this seems like weak tea if you peer across the border. The must-see clips from the U.S. election roll in every day: Katie Couric interviewing Sarah Palin. Tina Fey having her way with Katie Couric's interviews with Sarah Palin. It's Will.i.am's tributes, Jon Stewart's satire, Obama's digitized speeches and John McCain's digitized mumbling. And all of this served over a never-ending series of gotcha moments featuring belligerent cable-TV hosts and their campaign-operative guests, who take turns being incendiary and stupid.
It's been a while since I looked at the United States with anything that resembled envy, but there's something appealing about this dog-and-pony show. It speaks of engagement and excitement and citizen activism. And, since the Internet is a citizen-driven place, it seems reasonable to ask why Canadian voters didn't whip up a storm like their American counterparts.
We can point to a few factors.
One is that this American election is the most watchable in history, with a cast of characters that would be at home in a sitcom: the world-changing orator, the small-minded small-town mayor, and gramps. Canadians, on the other hand, were offered something more like the choice between mashed potatoes and mashed turnip, where the turnip wants to impose a carbon tax.
Second, so much viral video isn't made by citizens or parties in the first place, but is simply mainstream television that's been carved up and put online - increasingly, by the networks themselves. A lot of high drama is snatched from the Punch-and-Judy show of cable news, which has not shown itself to be particularly nutritious for the body politic. There's little competing with the American entertainment complex.
And even if Canada did produce the same quantity and quality of video output, the question remains of where we'd go to find it. Canada has no shortage of well-respected online publications like The Tyee and the Maisonneuve websites, but these are burdened with quaint trinkets like editors and editorial judgment. We have no wildly popular, user-driven website like Digg, a site that's all dessert and no main course, the kind that relentlessly promotes the most salacious, eye-grabbing, instantly-gratifying clips.
It could be that we're not behind America in this regard: Perhaps the kind of virally propelled election we're seeing might be a uniquely American phenomenon, something that only happens in a country so large, so rich, and so spectacularly divided. Citizen engagement is all well and good, and the Internet is a great medium, but the things that make good viral video might not make for healthy democracy.
As you might have seen Rudy Giuliani sneering on YouTube, "Only in America."