Not Waiting for Pundits' Take, Web Audience Scores the Candidates in an Instant

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Presidential debates are customarily scored and picked apart the instant the moderator says "good night" at 10:30 p.m. But the Web is speeding up time. When the first of this season's debates started on Wednesday in Denver, the scoring began at 9:01 p.m., as soon as Jim Lehrer, the moderator, said "Good evening."

Mr. Lehrer's open-ended questions, Mitt Romney's plan to end the federal subsidy for PBS and Mr. Romney's high energy level -- against President Obama's comparatively low energy level -- all received spikes of attention from viewers who were chatting online along with the debate. The instant feedback helped harden conventional wisdom that Mr. Obama had turned in a weak performance, even before he had finished speaking.

On MSNBC, liberal hosts like Ed Schultz were taken aback by Mr. Obama. Mr. Schultz threw up his arms at one point after the debate and asked, "Where was the president tonight?"

His colleague, Chris Matthews, loudly suggested that Mr. Obama watch MSNBC's programs for debating advice. "He will learn something every night on this show and all these shows," he said.

After Mr. Obama was pronounced "rusty" by CNN hosts, the analyst David Gergen said, "I didn't think he was rusty so much as I don't think anybody's ever spoken to him like that over the last four years. I think he found that not only surprising, but offensive in some ways."

The recent surge in so-called second-screen behavior was vividly on display during the debate, both on social networking sites like Twitter that barely existed four years ago and on all manner of even newer apps promoted by media companies. At least half a dozen outlets, as varied as CNBC and The Huffington Post, had debate drinking games ready to go beforehand.

Afterward, the television networks that used to have a monopoly on pre- and postgame shows tapped into the torrent of online opinions. On NBC, Brian Williams quoted from the instant reactions of the journalists Ron Fournier and James Fallows. Fox News Channel's Greta Van Susteren cited Twitter messages from the progressive HBO host Bill Maher ("I can't believe I'm saying this, but Obama looks like he does need a teleprompter") and the Republican strategist Mike Murphy ("It's funny; tonight Romney is much better than his campaign; Obama is far worse").

Mr. Romney's mention of Big Bird -- in the context of ending federal funding for PBS -- stirred an enormous amount of online attention, as well as a few parody accounts on Twitter, with made-up names like "Fired Big Bird." Hours after the debate concluded, Big Bird was still a trending topic on Twitter.

Outlets like NBC used the debate, the first of four this month, as a test bed for new online tools. Reflecting the changes in consumer behavior, Vivian Schiller, the chief digital officer for NBC News, said, "I can't watch a debate anymore without having my iPhone in my hand. I don't feel like I'm having the full experience if I'm not reading the reaction in real time."

For the duration of the debate, many of the reactions were cynical, particularly on Facebook, far preferred over Twitter by normal viewers at home. Users there accused both candidates of dodging questions and lying their way through the 90-minute session. Joked one Facebook user afterward, "I should have played the debate drinking game!"

And in something of a Rorschach test, Votizen, a technology company, tracked Twitter messages from registered voters. Minutes after Mr. Lehrer ended the debate, Votizen found "love" to be the top term used by Republicans and "tax" to be the top term by Democrats.

And independent voters? The top term was "LOL," short for laugh out loud.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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