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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION

A Hit-and-Miss Dot-Com-vention

Internet: The numerous online tools with which to follow the GOP gathering don't always click.

August 04, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — If you stick a camera on a staff member's head and send him roaming around a convention hall, will they come?

That was the question posed by insightmag.com, just one of the dozens of Web sites covering the Republican National Convention this week. Whether it was chat rooms, instant polls or 360-degree floor-cams, most Web sites used similar bell-and-whistle tactics.

While a couple of Web sites covered the national party conventions in 1996, this convention is considered the coming-out party for cyberspace. And while their numerical success is uncertain--many Web sites don't yet have or won't release their number of hits--reaction to their convention debut is already here.

"It was more potential than performance," said Michael Cornfield, research director of the Democracy Online Project at George Washington University. "They had two things working against them: technical glitches, and there wasn't much news."

C-SPAN.org's search tool, for example, which is supposed to immediately take online users to a specific word or phrase--"affirmative action" in Colin L. Powell's speech for instance--crashed. A feature of Speakout.com's site, which was supposed to enable users to rate a convention speech in real time, crashed just before vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney's speech.

Other sites were slow to give users access and then required them to download audio and video software. And once users got on the sites, they found that the much-ballyhooed Web cameras delivered a grainy, jumpy picture at best.

"This isn't television," said Jeanne Meyer, a vice president of Pseudo.com, one of two Web sites with prestigious sky-box locations at the First Union Center. "If you just want to watch the speeches, you should turn on your television."

"It's like anything new," she said. "There has to be a group that's willing to walk over the glass to be first, new and cutting-edge, and that's us."

In general, however, the Web sites functioned fairly well. The Internet again proved its adeptness at bringing together vastly different people. If it's true that politics makes for strange bedfellows, then dot-com coverage just made them stranger.

Mediabureau.com, a Web site that targets "apathetic nonvoting youth," had their hip DJ, who goes by the name Lil G, square off against the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Earlier in the week, Falwell had made a disparaging remark about the apathy of young people, over which the 21-year-old Lil G took umbrage.

But it remains to be seen if the Web sites' distinctive features will foster democracy or further push political coverage toward info-tainment. Topics of instant online polls ranged from the visit of pro wrestler The Rock to which Cabinet post Bush should offer Powell. The polls are unscientific and provide little insight into the views of most voters.

Chat rooms battled to keep debates centered on political topics. Often the back-and-forth between chatters degenerated into childish spats about the candidates or other users.

Many dot-coms asked delegates or journalists to maintain daily convention diaries. Here's an excerpt from an Indiana delegate who wrote for AOL.com:

"Later, some ladies from our delegation and myself danced while standing on our seats to the '40's music playing during the World War II tribute. Then several media shouted at us, 'Barbara Bush is pointing at him (me), would he turn around and wave at her so we can take pictures?' So I did."

Still, many of the sites served as an invaluable storehouse for relevant, and instant, information. Users could check on corporate political donations on grassroots.com and go to voter.com for complete transcripts of any convention speech.

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