My wife and I watched last Friday's presidential debate on PBS and I'm glad. It was only later that I heard about the graphical extravaganza that I missed by not watching CNN:
(Image from WSJ's Numbers Guy blog by Carl Bialik: Scoring the Debate Live on CNN.)
This screenshot is the HD version. I gather that non-HD viewers saw the bottom part but not the analyst scorecards on the sides. The "audience reaction" lines along the bottom represents data from 32 focus group viewers.
Carl Bialik at the WSJ compares it to a sporting match and says he and friends "were alternately distracted, bemused and befuddled by all the data." But apparently CNN didn't think it was distracting enough — regarding the audience lines, Bialik says, "The audience rarely went sharply positive or negative, so he [CNN's executive producer for elections] plans to zoom in on the center of the scale." So basically the idea is not to indicate any kind of accurate measure. They just want to show pretty lines going up and down.
The CNN graph is a distraction, of course, and yet another manifestation of the triumph of surface/sensationalist crap over reflection and substance, but it's more than that too. People's perceptions will be shaped by it, both directly, in the sense that the scores guide them in their thinking, and indirectly by what they cause people to miss by not paying closer attention to the candidates. Can CNN not leave the viewers alone for 90 minutes to think for themselves?
I was surprised to learn via Google that real-time polling data was presented during debates way back in 1992. This article at a site called the Museum for Broadcast Communications claims that the experiment was a success: The Debate Pulse.
Silicon valley techies have a way of taking this sort of thing to a new level, and they didn't disappoint. Via Valleywag comes this plot of Twitter activity during the debate, created by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone (see The Debate: A Twitter Play-by-Play). Feast your eyes on this colorful monstrosity:
(click to enlarge)
I challenge anyone to point to something meaningful in that mess. Okay, lots of purple means lots of people twittered about Iraq after McCain said something provocative about Iraq. Big surprise!
Twitter even has an election site where you can watch live election-related brain farts as they arrive from the quick fingers of the Twitterati: Twitter Election 2008. I get that people chat about the debate, online and off, but I object to the suggestion that any of this real-time data is meaningful. I likely muttered a few things during the debate myself, but I'm sure none of it was worth remembering.