Inauguration Invites Online Participation

Jan 22, 2009 2:01 PM. All work by , , ,

BOSTON—Over a million Americans will be able to tell their children exactly where they were when the first black man became President—on Facebook. Just before Barack Obama gave his inaugural address, more than 1.3 million users tuned-in to CNN’s coverage on

The presence on Facebook was more than half the number of visitors who filled the streets, fields and bars of the capital that day. Although live video broadcasts of a presidential inauguration have been available online since 1997, this year could be the first time the entire world has been asked to do more than just hear it or watch it.

Social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter teamed up with media outlets CNN and Current TV to experiment with this year’s coverage. Both of the social networks allowed online members to comment alongside a streaming broadcast of the inauguration, making each site a digital living room where anyone on the Internet could watch and chat about presidential politics.

“Everyone is usually in their secluded little [space],” said media analyst Steve Garfield, “just consuming, versus leaning forward and participating.” A multimedia journalist himself, Garfield said that he was impressed by the service provided by Facebook and CNN. He predicted that the success of the digital broadcast is only the start of good things to come from the interactive feature.

“I think that with technology like this, you might see more people interested in participating in [politics] when it becomes as easy as Facebook just made it,” Garfield said.

Until recently, online conversations were typically restricted to chat rooms, said Garfield. A less popular method of conversing is through Internet relay chats (IRC), which let multiple people share and discuss content through a web browser. The inaugural coverage, suggested Garfield, was a culmination of these past innovations that made Facebook and Twitter a place where people could watch and listen together.

“It’s not essential,” Garfield said, hesitantly, “but it adds value to certain people who are interested in community.”
According to a statement released by CNN, the online community at Live totaled over 18.8 million people between the hours of 6 a.m. and 1 p.m., breaking a record of 5.3 million viewers that was set on Election Day.

Prior to the inauguration, Tobe Berkovitz, a media analyst and professor of communication at Boston University, said he expected fewer people to rely on the web for inaugural coverage.

“I think when you have an event like the inauguration,” Berkovitz began, “the mainstream media becomes more significant.” He argued that this inauguration emphasized new media strategies more than tech innovations, and he predicted that media networks would rely mostly on television as their main outlet.

“People would rather watch [the inauguration] on a flat screen television than on their computer, iPhone or Blackberry,” said Berkovitz.

In an article from, a corporate social network for developers of video hosting sites, writer Stacey Higginbotham recommended “ditching” the online version of the inauguration and simply watching it on television. According to Higginbotham, CNN, ABC and C-SPAN all malfunctioned at least once during their broadcasts. To her, missing even a second of the inauguration was not worth chatting online during the event. Higginbotham’s article attracted several comments from people who experienced interruptions and delays in their own broadcasts. Others wrote that their computer screens were just too small to allow them to fully enjoy the historic moment.

When asked how he watched the event, Garfield admitted that he opted to watch the inauguration on television. “But just before the swearing in, I was watching the Live coverage with Facebook,” Garfield said with a laugh.

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