A classic viral moment

[youtube:http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=kica8hmSdAM&feature=related]

This video interview shows Derick Ashong, an Obama supporter, getting approached by a (presumably pro-Clinton) interviewer outside Obama and Clinton’s third debate in February last year.  Here’s how the New York Times described what happened next:

“So why are you for Obama?” he asked. It was clear from his approach that he expected a dimwitted answer, an expectation that he was about to talk to another acolyte smitten by Senator Obama’s rock star persona.

But, as it turned out, Mr. Ashong, who was raised in Ghana and elsewhere, was glad to be asked. For almost six minutes — about a century in broadcast television years — Mr. Ashong, who has an immigrant’s love of democracy and the furrowed brow of a Brookings fellow, held forth on universal health care, single-payer approaches and public-private partnerships.

“A lot of these H.M.O.’s are publicly traded companies anyway, but I don’t think we want to create a market for health care per se, like we don’t want to create a futures market in health care,” he said. And so on.

Cute stuff. Highly informative. But not the kind of political discourse that generally captures a wider audience.

But here’s the weird part. On Feb. 2, the interview of Mr. Ashong was posted on a YouTube channel called “The Latest Controversy,” where supporters of both Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Obama are asked very aggressively to justify their choice of candidates. The video blew up, drawing more than 850,000 views. And after that huge response to his policy analysis, Mr. Ashong decided to double down and explain the emotional component of his support for Obama in a follow-up video that was posted Feb. 11 and received 300,000 views.

Taken together, that means a guy who was looking to (anonymously) show a little love for a candidate was able to look into the camera for more than 13 minutes combined and draw in more than a million clicks with an impassioned but reasoned pitch.

Ashong will be in the UK next month, and speaking at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues.  Details: 6.30pm on 26 February in the Grand Committee Room in Parliament. More from the NYT piece after the jump.

At a time when politics and popular culture are still in an awkward mating ritual, Mr. Ashong inadvertently tapped into the youthquake that is shaking up the campaign. While the clip could have been lost among some of the popular rubble at YouTube (“Let me see, do I watch a tutorial on health care or Tori Spelling on ‘Jimmy Kimmel’?”), Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic blogged about it, as did Think on These Things, a political blog. Then The Economist chimed in, which led to an editor at The New York Times hearing about it and — well, you get the idea.

Part of what is under way has to do with a subversion of expectations. Watch broadcast news and you will see any number of man-on-the-street interviews. In this trope, a person with good hair solicits an enthusiastic sound bite from a supporter, pats her on the head and then moves on. But in this instance, neither party played by the rules. The journalist is never seen and is extremely aggressive in asking questions, while the subject, Mr. Ashong, does not so much take the bait as reel in the guy setting it out there.

“What you have here is two amateurs who are not acting like what they represent,” said Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “The ‘reporter’ is very probing, and then the ‘subject’ gives as good as he gets. It is a classic viral moment.”