Inauguration brings out best of Web

The 2008 campaign was the first presidential contest driven by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, so it was no surprise that online media giants threw everything they had at the inauguration.

Live Web streaming of Barack Obama’s historic swearing-in was a given. Virtually every major network news site, newspaper and video website featured the same live coverage shown on TV. Some, like CBSNews.com, were simple 4:3 TV in a small box, while others, such as Hulu, featured widescreen video in significantly higher quality, if not full high-def.

But live video is old hat, as are the “as it happens” blogs featured on NYTimes.com, WashingtonPost.com and a host of other news and politics sites.

The cutting edge in 2009 is social media, and nobody integrated it better than CNN, which provided a high-quality video stream that played right next to an application featuring Facebook users’ status updates as they watched the proceedings. Online viewers could choose between their friends or “everyone watching,” seeing live thoughts ranging from “This is so exciting!” to “Barack H.? What a copout!” to “Someone get Cheney a white cat to stroke.”

It’s no surprise that CNN demolished its all-time online record, serving 21.3 million video streams as of 3:30 p.m. Eastern, more than triple the record of 5.3 million it logged on Election Day.

FoxNews.com also broke its more modest internal record, serving more than 5 million streams.

MSNBC reported 14 million video streams as of 1 p.m. EST.

Like the Web itself, the effect was at times overwhelming and required sifting through plenty of crap to find the gems. But it added an extra element of community and, dare one say it, democracy to the event. It made the experience of sitting back and consuming what the networks aired feel so 20th century.

CNN and Facebook’s app wasn’t the only way to get the social experience. Many people created it themselves, as the flood of observations, both banal and deep, shared by Twitter users demonstrated. (My online friends weren’t focused as much on the gravitas of the event as on how cool it would be if the cannons played AC/DC and how much the announcer sounded like the voice from the videogame “Mortal Kombat.”)

Of course, no amount of engineering could overcome that oldest of Web hiccups: slow loads, jumpy video and sites that just plain crashed. CNN’s stream was a full two minutes behind live TV, according to estimates, and some who tried to log on during peak times had to wait several minutes, with an error message informing them, “You’ve got your place in line to join our watch party. As soon as space opens up, we’ll put you through.”

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