Is YouTube changing Congress? ‘Speechless’ delivers a loud message – silently.

Most people don't think 'smash YouTube hit' when they think about C-SPAN, but Rep. Joe Crowley's unspoken one-minute 'speech' on the floor of the House went viral on Friday.

Andy Nelson / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Rep. Joe Crowley meets with minority leader Nancy Pelosi in her Washington office in this 2002 file photo. Both Crowley and Pelosi posted Crowley's 'Speechless' to their YouTube channels Thursday. By Friday, the video's unspoken message had gone viral.

In 78 seconds, without uttering a single word, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D) of New York became a brief Internet sensation.

His silent condemnation of the GOP, delivered to the House Chamber and the C-SPAN audience via block print on a pad of tear-sheets, accused Republicans of failing to deliver on what he calls the “marching orders” of the 2010 election – “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”

“100 days in and [the] GOP still doesn’t get it,” his poster-size message declaimed. He ripped it off to reveal another, with three crossed-out adjectives: “I’m … surprised stunned shocked," before revealing the final, one-word sheet: “SPEECHLESS.”

He posted his 100-word, unspoken denunciation to his YouTube channel on Thursday afternoon, as did minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and by Friday afternoon, it had reached over 130,000 views. It was in the Top 100 most viewed videos of the day and for a time was the No. 1 most-viewed news video on the site.

So what does this piece of political theater tell us about the role of technology in politics – especially as the 2012 presidential cycle begins to heat up?

“The way this technology will be used in 2012 will be as different from 2008 as that year was from 2004,” says John McNulty, a political scientist at Binghamton University in New York. “It will be another great leap forward, leveraging the web to reach voters in more and more new ways.”

Essentially, he says, YouTube distributes commercials you can choose to watch. In the “old media” world, politicians had to spend big money to buy expensive TV ads – which may or may not reach the people they need to contact. With this kind of clip, costing virtually nothing to produce, he says, they reach not only their own constituents, but people who would never have bothered to listen to a C-SPAN speech from some junior congressman from New York.

“This nationalizes the discussion,” says Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. What Representative Crowley does in the video – using visual tools to make his point – has been done before, he says, pointing to Ross Perot’s use of diagrams to illustrate budget woes. But here, social networking “does the work for these politicians,” he says, adding this is just one of the many “new and fascinating tools “ that will get picked up for the next election.

The Democrats certainly don’t have a copyright on this,” Professor Schmidt adds, “so count on the Republicans to come back with some of the same.”

This is just one more example of the revolution that is changing the way we communicate with each other, says Professor Levinson. YouTube videos represent an important shift for the democratic process, he says, “because they are searchable.” Before this, he notes, anyone who wanted to watch a recorded moment on C-SPAN, for instance, had to slog through hours of tape, looking for that key comment or moment – or “watch the TV news shows and rely on the clips they selected for you out of political speeches.”

YouTube puts the power back in the hands of the individual, Levinson says, allowing people to find information when and how they want to. “Democracy thrives on information,” he says, “so new tools that refine and simplify our ability to get the information we want represent important cultural moves forward. It’s all part of the larger new media universe still unfolding around us.”

“I imagine this is something similar to what the Phoenicians must have experienced when they first got the alphabet some three thousand years ago,” says Levinson.

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