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The handshake at the beginning. The sideways glances and furious note-taking. The occasional interruption. The partisan cheering. These are the hallmarks of presidential debates of years past. Yet, Yahoo, Slate and the Huffington Post believe that having the candidates in distant locations hooked up virtually online will make for a better “user-generated” debate.

The troika of websites recently announced plans for two online-only presidential debates in the fall — one for Democrats and one for Republicans. The debates will be hosted on Yahoo, with video archived on Slate and Huffington Post. Average folks will be able to submit questions to the candidates, but the questions will be chosen ahead of time by PBS host Charlie Rose.

“It’s a really significant, historic opportunity for the candidates to test their debate skills in a brand new format,” Yahoo’s director of news and information Scott Moore told the AP.

But I wonder just how much of a step forward the new format would be for a public debate. Having candidates in different locations means we don’t have a feel for where they are and what situation they are in. There’s something daunting and real about candidates up on stage under the lights having to answer questions posed by someone sitting right in front of them.

Unless the technology is down cold, I can’t see this becoming a crystal clear communication mechanism that will offer spontaneity and continuity throughout an hour-long debate. When was the last time you were on a videoconference call where everyone could hear each other and tell what everyone else was doing and saying at the same time without any snafus?

And let’s not even start to consider what will happen when Yahoo gets overloaded with thousands of questions and will have to serve millions of streams of live video to all the viewers who want to watch the debates live.

‘User-Generated Politics’

I contacted Yahoo’s Moore to ask him to explain the debate beyond what was reported in the basic AP story. I wanted to know why this was going to be a significantly different debate, and here’s his explanation via email:

Well, for one thing, the format we’re planning will be to have the candidates all online at the same time but in different locations. So rather than a highly formal setting, we’ll have camera crews go to the candidates wherever they are on the campaign trail. That’s different.

Second, the questions are going to come from the audience. Yahoo has run several programs already using its Answers software. In the case of Hillary Clinton, she posted a question that generated over 38,000 answers from our users. In the weeks leading up the online debate, Slate, Huffington Post and Yahoo will all offer users the opportunity to submit questions. Charlie Rose will sort through them and pick the best to ask the questions.

Third, while the debate is live, users will have the opportunity to rate the quality of a candidate’s answer to a particular question. If you like Barack Obama’s answer to a question on foriegn policy for example, you’ll be able to give him a ‘virtual thumbs up.’ We will track the ratings in real time so our audience will have a running view of how people watching the debate feel about the quality of the candidate’s answers to question.

Last, we’ll archive the debate content so if you miss the live event, you’ll easily be able to look up a candidate’s answer on a particular topic even after the debate. You won’t have to rely on a filter of media pundits to analyze the performances of the candidates even if you can’t log on when it’s live.

I like the idea for real-time ratings of the candidates and what they’re saying, but I could also see how campaigns could try to jam the ratings in the favor of their candidates. I have to give the three sites credit for trying something different and experimental in the presidential campaigning realm — and for their smarts in choosing something guaranteed to bring them traffic.

Moore says that this online presidential debate is part of Yahoo’s push into “user-generated politics.”

“Through Yahoo’s social networking tools like Flickr, Jumpcut, Upcoming.org, Answers, Groups and Yahoo Video in combination with our leading news site and the power of Yahoo’s network, we intend to be the online leader in election coverage.”

Those are all pretty powerful features of Yahoo, but the problem has always been integration among Yahoo’s sites — without angering the denizens of each one.

And perhaps integration will be the trickiest part of an online debate as well. Where will the candidates be? Where will Charlie Rose be? Where will the audience be? Bringing them together for a unified experience on a computer screen will be a huge challenge. And it will have to overcome the loss of live interactions we’re used to seeing in debates. There’s something real and human about candidates sharing the stage, trading barbs and trying to look presidential under the klieg lights.

What do you think? Are online-only debates a good idea? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of the American flag by Jonathon Colman.