New York: In an inauguration defined by a sense of change, the experience of watching Barack Obama take office was fittingly revolutionary.
Like never before, Americans watched the inauguration of an incoming president online through live video streaming across their computers. And wholly wrapped up in following Inauguration Day 2009 on the Web was reacting to them—blogging, vlogging and tweeting.
Essentially every major news outlet offered live feeds on their respective websites in what was potentially the most Web-driven coverage of a significant news event yet. It was partly out of necessity, since many viewers were at work in front of their computers—and away from TV sets—for the midday swearing in.
It was also a notable benchmark in the fast evolution of online video. At the time of the last inauguration, YouTube didn’t even exist.
Hooked up: Amanda Raflo watches the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama online at a coffee shop in Charlotte, North Carolina. Chuck Burton / AP
The major news portals—Yahoo.com, CNN.com, MSNBC.com, AOL News, The New York Times, ABC.com, CBS.com, Fox.com, WashingtonPost.com—all streamed the festivities, some with video embedded right on their home page for the first time.
Akamai Technologies Inc., which delivers Internet video for many websites, said the inauguration was a record for them, with 7.7 million people watching video streams at the same time. So much video meant bandwidth was stretched considerably for many sites and many servers. On the whole, the webcasts appeared to function well, albeit with some lags.
Keynote Systems Inc., which tracks website performance, said the Internet’s top 40 sites slowed down by as much as 60% when the ceremony started at 11am, and many news sites saw even sharper declines in performance. Many sites streaming the festivities gave four different perspectives on the ceremony, giving the viewer the option of watching the primary feed, the crowd amassed along the National Mall or other views. The Associated Press’ online video network provided a webcast for many news outlets, including AOL News.
Several outlets looked to combine traditional coverage with new media interactivity.
CNN partnered with Facebook (for users of the social networking site) to include status updates from friends alongside the webcast. The result was that it (kind of) felt like you were watching along with your friends. By Tuesday evening, CNN.com said it served more than 21.3 million live streams globally since 6am. That was nearly four times the amount of live streams on the site on Election Day when there were 5.3 million live streams.
Mimi Wong, a 28-year-old public defender from Brookline, Massachusetts, watched the CNN.com webcast at work with her colleagues. “It was pretty cool,” said Wong. “I was actually kind of surprised that the connection was so good.”
Current TV, the user-driven TV network co-founded by Al Gore, likewise combined streaming of the event with Twitter messages or “tweets.” Messages from viewers played at the bottom of both Current’s broadcast and webcast.
Other webcasts were offered by Hulu.com, C-SPAN.org, Joost.com, Ustream.tv (whose feed was available on iPhones, too) and the presidential inauguration committee itself (www.pic2009.org).
But not everyone had a seamless experience watching online. Lyndsey Lewis, a 22-year-old student at the University of Florida, wanted to catch the inauguration online at her school library before heading to class. She checked the webcasts from numerous sites, including CNN and Hulu but was frustrated by the interruptions. “There were so many pauses that I missed really crucial moments of the inauguration,” said Lewis. “I didn’t expect it to be TV quality, but I definitely thought it would be a lot better than it was.”
Loath to leave behind his BlackBerry, Obama is easily the most tech-savvy president and the country’s first president of the Web 2.0 era. Shortly before taking the oath, he also issued a tweet of his own: “We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you.”
The inauguration committee offered official inaugural news updates, transportation notices and invitations by cellphone text messages. “There’s just a lively discourse on our website,” said Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for the inauguration committee. “It’s very satisfying because our goal here is to make people feel connected to the party and to the events in Washington and to their government.”
Several sites aimed to let people in on the celebrations in Washington. The Huffington Post hosted a ball on Monday night in Washington that included blogging from attendees, live video on the website and photos. Second Life and Wee World also hosted virtual inaugural balls so that even if you were far away from the festivities, your avatar could be partying the night away. A number of sites offered bells and whistles to their coverage.
The Washington Post provided satellite imagery of the district of Columbia area and culled a user-generated photo mosaic of Obama through submissions on Flickr.com (the photo site also began to see pictures pour in Tuesday from Washington and elsewhere, documenting the day).
YouTube partnered with C-SPAN to gather inaugural addresses from presidencies past. One of YouTube’s stars, Obama Girl, streamed her take on the events live on Stickam.com.
MSNBC.com created a video explorer to let users search transcripts of the past 18 inaugural speeches, matching words with the corresponding video. MSNBC.com and CNN.com both touted Microsoft’s “photosynth” technology, a three-dimensional panorama of the inauguration.
A digital transition was also evident at the official site of the President. At noon (Eastern Standard Time), WhiteHouse.gov unveiled a new design.
It announced: “Change has come to WhiteHouse.gov.”
Peter Svensson contributed to this story.