Information overload in the Facebook-ABC presidential debates?

The wildly popular social-networking site generated millions of bytes of comments during Saturday night's Democratic and Republican debates, too many for any human to ever hope to read.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
During the ABC-Facebook Democratic and Republican debates in Manchester, N.H., Saturday night, the social-networking site launched a politics "Soundboard" (screenshot shown here) that racked up more than 35,000 comments during the East Coast broadcast alone.

MANCHESTER, N.H.--It sounded like a good idea at first: let Internet users be part of, virtually speaking, the Democratic and Republican presidential debates on Saturday evening by posting comments on a special Facebook message board.

But it turned out to be one of those ideas that may be better in theory than in practice. During the East coast broadcast of the debates, Facebook users posted around 35,000 "Soundboard" messages, meaning that at perhaps 50 characters each, that's some 1.75 million characters to read during an approximately three-hour period. All of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, by contrast, is only 700,000 characters.

To read all those messages, at 20 per page, you'd have to refresh your browser's screen 1,750 times. That's not even counting comments posted by west coast Facebook users (Facebook, which co-sponsored the debate here with ABC News, said the west coast figures were not yet available).

No doubt, the political twitterers must've felt empowered to know their Soundboard comments were being beamed out to an audience of potentially millions of Facebook users, and, if plucked by ABC's designated Facebook-monitoring reporter on TV, millions of offline viewers as well.

Still, it's a little unclear whether the comments will prove all that useful for campaigns looking to boost their candidates' standing.

Facebookers opined that Hillary Clinton is "onto Barack like a Rottweiler" one moment and "has about as much experience and common sense as an avacado [sic]" the next. Ron Paul is a "looney" to some, but "the only one who understands economics" and "the only logical and realistic choice," to others.

Mitt Romney, who arguably endured the largest share of attacks during the Republican debate, drew mixed reviews: everything from "the only one who understands insurance," "looks younger than 60," to "is getting creamed," and "lost this debate." Some users wrote that Barack Obama "can deal with foreign policy because he has no baggage," "has Americans taking action," and "is picking up some serious momentum"--but others said he "has no ideas" and is "all fluff."

Arguably more useful to political strategists are the dozens of surveys that Facebook also staged during the event. More than 100,000 people (again, those are East Coast numbers only) responded to dozens of poll questions like, "Is tonight's debate giving you a better sense of whom you will vote for?" and "Do you agree with Barack Obama that Hillary Clinton is 'likable enough?'" Colored charts broke down in real time, by percentage and raw numbers, how many Facebook users thought the U.S. economy will be very weak in 2008 (27 percent), or how many Facebook users are "very certain" how they'll cast their presidential ballots (56 percent).

In any case, some Facebook users didn't seem to mind what could easily qualify as information overload.

I glimpsed one Soundboard comment that deemed the ABC-Facebook approach "more interactive and innovative" than the previous crop of Web 2.0-ified debates, in which Internet users submitted video questions for the candidates ahead of time through YouTube.

Another user gushed that he "is hardly paying attention to the actual debate because the soundboard is far more interesting anyway! Love you face book [sic] people! GO OBAMA!"

Facebook also said it viewed the project as a success and was thrilled to see so many responses. The Soundboard was still live at press time, even though it was intended to accompany the debates only. A company spokesman told us Sunday morning that the site's still pondering when to shut it down--and is strongly considering reviving it at other periods during the election year.

Here's a piece of advice for those who prefer reading millions of bytes of Facebook musings to fine literature: Facebook said was still trying to decide how to handle the issue of archived "Soundboard" messages. (Right now, only the most recent 20 one-liners appear to be accessible at any given time.) Pride and Prejudice, however, remains available at your local bookseller or library.

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.