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An Historical Twofer: President Obama and the Internet Inaugural

Today’s inauguration, the perfect made-for-Internet viewing event, is expected to draw the largest audience yet for an event online. Here’s a brief guide to watching (and participating in) the festivities from your desk.

At the Consumer Electronics Show the other day, KC Estenson, the president of CNN.com estimated that the inauguration will be the most watched event in Internet history. No wonder. Although millions of people are expected to descend on the National Mall in Washington, it’s a workday for most of us. But a workday unlike any other. It’s an almost-holiday, when a distracted nation keeps one eye on the festivities in the capital and another on—um…wait, which knee am I operating on again? Seriously, you might think twice about undergoing any major surgery or financial transactions today.

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This isn’t the first inauguration to be available online. Back in 2001 Netscape touted its live streaming of the swearing in. Of course, broadband was nowhere near as widespread as it is now. And this inauguration is different. It’s the perfect made-for-Internet national (and global) viewing event, even more than the election night or last summer’s Olympic Games.

Aside from the fact that people are more likely to have access to a computer at work than a TV, Americans are eager to witness history, the swearing in of our first African-America president. President-elect Obama tapped the networking power of the Internet unlike any previous presidential candidate, to communicate directly to voters, organize rallies, and raise money (see our prescient story The Brand Called Obama). All this coincides with the maturation of online video.

There is no shortage of sites where you can watch today’s events. But here’s a short guide to making the most of the Web’s offerings:


Start with a history lesson.

Hulu, the popular joint project between Fox and NBC Universal, offers footage of previous inaugurations. It’s riveting. McKinley’s speech from 1901, the first inauguration shot on film, looks like a grainy silent film. Don’t remember speeches without a teleprompter? McKinley glances at what look like index cards. Part of the silent footage of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1917 was shot on stage, the frame partly obscured by a shoulder, giving it the feel of a home movie.

The first time Americans could hear the inaugural address live was in 1925, when it was broadcast on the radio. And thanks to the enterprising filmmakers who developed their film on a special express train between Washington and New York, some New Yorkers also watched footage of Calvin Coolidge taking office the same day in theaters, another technological first.

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Perhaps the most appropriate speech for today, though, is from FDR’s first inauguration, in 1933. Addressing a country in the throes of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt talked of getting people back to work and “waging war against the emergency,” and he insisted, “There must be an end to speculation with other people’s money.”  And he told Americans the only thing they should fear despite all the economic hardship is (You really have to hear it from him.).

Write your own speech.

Now that you’re primed, put yourself in the president’s shoes. What would you say to the nation? Keep it short, though. Six words, to be exact. That’s the challenge issued by National Constitution Center and Smith Magazine, the same folks who ran the clever six-word memoir project. This exercise in extreme brevity makes a Haiku read like an epic. But as the organizers point out, in 1865 President Lincoln said plenty in six words: “Malice toward none, charity for all.”

Some of the submissions are Twitter-ready:
“Invest in civic energy. It’s renewable.”
“Our past is not our future.”

And some are just funny: “The Fresh Prince of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Build a platform.

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This slideshow shows the construction of the stage in front of the Capitol. It comes courtesy of the Joint Congressional Committee of Inaugural Committees, which despite its cumbersome name has a decent site.

Watch while you work.

Back to Hulu, which is live-streaming coverage of the event. Using the “pop-out” feature, you can add a mini-version of the video player on your screen to allow you to work on other applications. Or you can use the full-screen feature to give it more of a TV broadcast feel. You can also embed the widget, which comes with a countdown to the event.

Watch with friends.

Given the importance of social networking to Obama’s campaign, it’s only fitting that you watch the inauguration while commenting on Facebook and reading what your friends are saying, all in real time. CNN and Facebook team up to offer an intriguing experiment, which feels like something we’ll see again. For the Oscars, the NCAAs, you name it.

Follow it like a Washingtonian.

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That’s a pretty full day. Still not sated? Check out the Washington Post for parade and inaugural ball coverage. The Post always pulls out the stops on these sort of big events in its backyard.

There. That’s everything you want to need to follow today’s inauguration. Now, about that report that’s due at 5…

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About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug

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