James Kotecki's final semester of college was surely the most memorable. The 21-year-old international politics major at Georgetown University used the semester not to study intensely, party, or catch up on sleep but to show presidential candidates that he may know a little more than they do about something--specifically, how to make an effective YouTube video.
Using his dorm room as a set, pencil puppets of the candidates as props, and a laptop that never quite recovered from a milk spill as equipment, Kotecki in January produced videos in which he compliments and criticizes the 2008 candidates' use of the new online medium. He's encouraged Hillary Clinton to make more of her online videos--"HillCasts"--and scolded Rep. Duncan Hunter for using "Go Hunter Go" for his YouTube channel. Kotecki said the name reminded him of a children's book by P.D. Eastman, "Go, Dog, Go!"
Making an online video often takes Kotecki more than three hours; from writing the script, to filming, editing, and uploading the video to YouTube. "I'm making two-minutes episodes of--I guess you could call it a show--but the cool thing is I can try a lot of different things and people can respond to me and basically let me know what works and what doesn't," he says. Some candidates are listening.
Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, for instance, replied to Kotecki's suggestion that the candidate change his background and bring the camera in closer for a more intimate look. Kucinich responded via YouTube and heeded Kotecki's advice by speaking close to the camera--maybe a little too close, Kotecki says now.
The big breakthrough, though, came when Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas came to Georgetown for what was very likely the first interview conducted with a presidential candidate in a college dorm. Jesse Benton, Paul's communications director, said that setting up the interview wasn't the safest decision, but he saw Kotecki as someone who could speak to young voters.
"I see him as a really bright guy and as a good early adapter," Benton said. "He took his natural talents and enthusiasm and recognized the potency of YouTube on political videos." Soon after, former Alaskan Sen. Mike Gravel also appeared in the dormitory.
While Kotecki contacted all the candidates' campaigns, the two fringe candidates were the first to respond. Jeff Jarvis, who video blogs at Prezvid.com and is the director of the interactive journalism program the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, said every candidate should have jumped at the opportunity to appear on YouTube with Kotecki. "Imagine the attention that any of the leading candidates--Clinton, Edwards, McCain--would have gotten if they'd popped up in James' dorm room," Jarvis says. "That was just wonderful, and that was made possible by the YouTube age."
As Kotecki has posted each of his videos to YouTube, his personal blog, and his Facebook account, his audience has expanded enormously. Today more than 1,000 people subscribe to Kotecki's YouTube channel, which gets more subscriptions than eight of the presidential candidates' channels, including prominent second-tier contenders Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. "I think people like the idea that it's just me in my dorm room doing it." Kotecki says. "If anybody is really like, 'this video sucks,' it's like, 'yeah, I'm using an old PC that has moviemaker and I'm in my dorm room in front of my cereal boxes'. It's intentionally not high budget."
Since his May graduation, Kotecki has moved his "studio" to his office at the Cypress Group in Washington, D.C., where he continues to film his videos after hours. While he works as a consultant now, he sees YouTube as his future. "I'm basically trying to figure out a way; after I build up an audience, it would be great to support myself on the videos," Kotecki says.
By Nikki Schwab