No rest for the Web's election-weary

Having gained mainstream notoriety amid Obama-McCain drama, social-media outlets such as Current TV, Digg, Facebook, and Twitter now look to capitalize on it elsewhere.

SAN FRANCISCO--There wasn't much time for Current Media, the cable news network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore, to recover from last week's election and its marathon live broadcast, infused with content from Digg, Twitter, and countless video bloggers.

On Friday, Gore was giving the final address of the Web 2.0 Summit , a few blocks to the west of Current's offices, at the Palace Hotel, and plenty of advertising and marketing types were in town for the occasion.

Since it's a media company partially dependent on ad and sponsorship revenues, Current seized the opportunity, inviting a selection of visiting Madison Avenue types over to its offices for a meet-and-greet lunch with a special appearance by Gore, who famously went from losing the 2000 presidential election to winning an Academy Award and a Nobel Peace Prize.

That morning, things were bustling, as maintenance staff was streaming in and out the front door, filling the downstairs lobby with dining tables and potted plants unloaded from two trucks parked outside. At so many of the Bay Area's tech brands that had launched election coverage, promotions, or other tie-ins, the attitude was the same: Nice job. Now let's keep moving.

"I was even joking the other day that I kind of felt like I have a bit of postpartum depression," said Randi Zuckerberg, who, as Facebook's marketing director, handles the social network's political-outreach efforts. "It was such a long, drawn-out, exciting election, and now it's just over."

But even for Facebook, at the top of Silicon Valley's pecking order, there is a sense that a quick turnaround is needed. "I'm definitely looking forward to jumping right into some of the international politics, international elections," Zuckerberg said, reflecting the company's dramatic overseas expansion and hope to tap into the same election fever abroad through voting-outreach initiatives. Its efforts proved successful in the United States, with 15 million people over the age of 18 logging into the site last Tuesday.

What's current at Current Media
The story is different at a company like Current, which was dismissed by some at its 2005 launch as a long-shot experiment. For Gore's company, the 2008 election posed an important street cred test.

Current's office looks more like a perky dot-com circa 1997 than a news media network. The space hosted a coffee beanery in the city's manufacturing era and a finance start-up during the tech boom, it's now a cavernous, servers-and-wires-filled space with exposed brick walls, post-industrial pipes, and blaring monitors. For Election Night, the office was transformed into "an election nerve center," Current's resident digital guru, Robin Sloan, told CNET News on Friday morning. "We had the Twitter room, the Digg room, the election control room ," Sloan explained in a bubbly staccato. "It was totally electric. I mean, manic."

Current's ambitious election coverage came with plenty of risks: the potential awkwardness of working with Digg, which Current had unsuccessfully tried to acquire in 2006, and Twitter, which has had problems just keeping its servers running properly. The coverage had been planned in a matter of weeks, too.

"The idea to plug in the Twitters didn't really occur to us until we saw the way that people were using Twitter during the (Democratic and Republican parties') conventions," Sloan said. "We ended up getting a sponsor for this Election Day thing three days before it actually went on TV--from Microsoft."

But he says the company considers it to have been a great success, despite some critics' revulsion at Current's decision to use turquoise and magenta for its electoral map instead of red and blue. "This was like transplanting Web DNA into a Web-slash-TV project. To me, that was one of the big successes."

Like Facebook, Current plans to keep up the momentum and use it elsewhere.

"The question is, as we sort of recover, what is the next cool live event that we can construct something around?" Sloan suggested, adding that Inauguration Day is an easy pick but that it would be nice to choose something nonpolitical. Current, a 400-person operation, doesn't currently do much live coverage, and it was not yet able to provide concrete statistics on viewership or Web traffic.

The aftermath at Twitter and Digg
The election left both Digg and Twitter, meanwhile, at an inflection point: for Twitter, the political frenzy was its biggest chance yet to jump from digerati cult fame into the mainstream; Digg needed to prove to some that it's a potential media industry powerhouse rather than merely a hub of nerdy boys voting up and down on Apple rumors and wacky top-10 lists.

They're still, for the most part, in Barack mode. Several days after the election, Digg founder Kevin Rose taped a "Digg Dialogg" interview with Gore, who also signed up for a Twitter account that week. On Thursday, Twitter's blog highlighted a video clip of talk show hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert talking about the start-up.

That frenzy will die down sooner rather than later. And it goes without saying that in these economic conditions, regardless of President-elect Obama's potential, pre-revenue companies like Digg and Twitter need to get cracking on the money issue . That's another reason why there just isn't much time to relish a post-election hangover.

Some start-ups that were heavily reliant on election-related traffic or contracts have been hedging their bets. Liberal news outlet The Huffington Post, for example, spent the past year not only churning out a firestorm of election coverage but also launching new areas of coverage that wouldn't see a big drop in visits after Election Day. And representatives from a number of Web application makers that were commissioned to make spiffy election widgets for big media companies told CNET News late last month that they have their fingers crossed that those contracts and connections will lead to more high-profile deals after the election.

But onstage at the Web 2.0 Summit on Friday, a few hours after he met with potential advertisers and marketers at Current's offices, Al Gore put forth a different argument for maintaining momentum: the election was a stellar demonstration of how the likes of Digg, Twitter, and Facebook can be used for social change, and these times are too pressing to step back and return to that blissful age of zombie-biting apps and snotty Digg comments on wacky news stories.

"I do think that it's worth looking at the advantages of redesigning and rearchitecturing the context within which the activities take place--in other words, World 2.0," Gore said. "When there are changes that are needed, there's no timidity about going out and trying to make them happen."

That post-election, mid-November vacation getaway? Sorry. Maybe there'll be better luck after the 2010 midterms.

 

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