Searching for America in the Era of Web 2.0

Hitting the open road “in search of America” is a grand American tradition. Think On the Road! Think Easy Rider! Think National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation!

This summer, Alex, David, and Danbee, three MIT students are traveling across America, trying to get a sense of what the country is thinking, on the eve of a historic election, and they are reporting on what they see and hear using videoblogging, Twitter, and Flickr, among other digital tools. They even have a way that online readers can chip in towards gas money. You can follow their adventures over at This American Summer.

Here’s how they describe their project:

Q: What do you hope to accomplish?

A: Collect stories, walk through a field of corn, see mountains, eat raw oysters, tour breweries, and talk to people. We want to see what this country has to offer. Gain a deeper understanding for the way people live their lives and interact with their neighbors.

Q: That sounds cool. Can I come?

A: Unfortunately our van is at maximum capacity, but thanks the power of the Internet you can still join us. With the help of wireless broadband, we will be online and hoping to hear from you. We have a forum where you can discuss issues you want us to address or just chew the fat. Our route is posted and flexible so if you know a fun or interesting place, drop us a line and we might take a look. We will be posting video, pictures, journals, GPS data, music playlists, and even our budget information.

Q: I thought the Internet was just for funny pictures of my cat. How can you do all that?

A: Let me break it down for you. We have a Canon Rebel XT digital camera for photos and Canon Vixia HF100 digital camcorder for video. Our editing is done in Final Cut Express HD 3.5. The online services we are using include…

* WordPress: The blogging software we’re using to run the whole show

* BBPress Forums: A place where you can post questions for us and all our audience members to see

* Blip.tv: The web service that is hosting our webisodes

* Flickr: Where we will have our online photo collection

* Google Maps: With a GPS tracker, we can show you exactly where we’ve been

* Twitter: For the most up to date information on what we are doing

* Last.fm: A playlist of every song we listen to in the van

* Facebook: A way for fans to keep in touch

The students involved are from East Campus, a dorm which is across the street from Senior House, where I am housemaster. I met them recently when I gave a talk at East Campus on the role of new media in the current presidential campaigns and I was very impressed by their ambition and persistence. I certainly plan to check in on their travels from time to time this summer and hope that some of my readers will find this project of interest.

Of course, they are not the only ones trying to get a sample of what America is thinking and doing this summer. Here are a few other projects that might interest you:

Think MTV — MTV has brought on a team of 51 young citizen journalists to help them cover the presidential campaign. Here’s some background:

Using short-form videos, blogs, animation, photos and podcasts, the reports will be distributed through MTV Mobile, Think.MTV.com, more than 1,800 sites in The Associated Press’ Online Video Network and a soon-to-launch Wireless Application Protocol site. The Street Team ’08 reporters were carefully selected after an extensive nationwide search, and they represent every aspect of today’s youth audience — from seasoned student-newspaper journalists to documentary filmmakers, the children of once-illegal immigrants and community organizers.

They are conservative and liberal, from big cities and small towns, but all are tied together through a passion for politics and a yearning to make the youth voice heard during this pivotal election. The correspondents will begin reporting early next month after an intensive MTV News orientation in New York, during which they’ll be armed with laptops, video cameras and cell phones and challenged to uncover the untold political stories that matter most to young people in their respective states.

“Recent MTV research shows young people believe their generation will be a major force in determining who is elected in the upcoming local and national elections,” said Ian Rowe, MTV’s vice president of public affairs and strategic partnership, “and Street Team ’08 will be a key way for our audience to connect with peers, as well as get informed and engaged on the local and political issues that matter to them most.”

Patchwork NationThe Christian Science Monitor wants to move beyond the “Red State/Blue State” cliches and follow the campaign from the perspective of Eleven different kinds of communities. They explain:

We’ve identified 11 places across the US that represent distinct types of voter communities. They are Monied ‘Burbs, Minority Central, Evangelical Epicenters, Tractor Country, Campus and Careers, Immigration Nation, Industrial Metropolis, Boom Towns, Service Worker Centers, Emptying Nests, and Military Bastions. For example, Sioux Center, Iowa, typifies Tractor Country.

As the 2008 campaign progresses, the Monitor will write about what issues matter in each of these communities, how the issues affect residents’ votes, and how the candidates tailor their messages to a particular audience.

This site is based on evidence that people’s voting patterns are at least partly informed by where they live. People of the same race and age and family situation may vote differently depending on whom they connect with and what they see on their streets and in their local news. In some areas, people live for NASCAR; in others, residents like opera. Some towns open for business early and some stay up late. Some cities see Sunday mornings as church time, others see it as $30 brunch time or more work time. And Starbucks and Wal-Marts aren’t everywhere … yet.

Off the Bus — In an effort to break out of the themes and ideas most often covered by the professional media, the Huffington Post is offering what it calls “ground level coverage” of the presidential campaign. News is filed by bloggers across the country and periodically they are tapping the collective intelligence of their readers. Here’s a description of a recent project they launched in concert with newstrust.net:

Think of this ‘news hunt’ as a scavenger hunt for good journalism on John McCain. All week, from Monday, June 2nd, through Sunday, June 8th, we will collectively review hundreds of news articles and opinions about the candidate, using the NewsTrust review tools. Together, we will rate the news based on quality, not just popularity — by evaluating each article’s fairness, sourcing, context and other core principles of good journalism. This focus on quality information and news literacy can help us all make more informed decisions as citizens, as well as re-build the trust that has been lost between the news media and the public.

So, want to ‘find” America this summer? You can do so using the web! And given current gas prices, that’s not a bad idea!