To be sure, it's an unusual way to launch a new YouTube service for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. "In Honor of the www.YouTube.com/HouseHub Launch, Speaker Pelosi presents...Capitol Cat Cam"! What follows is a series of video clips of two cats mewing around an office in the Capitol. They sniff the flower arrangement. They look out the window at the Washington Monument. They toy with Pelosi's ceremonial gavel. Then, after about thirty seconds, things start to get weird.
Congratulations if you watched this far, you've just been Rickrolled by the most powerful woman in Congress. The Rickroll, an internet meme that started a few years ago, is basically a prank in which unsuspecting viewers are tricked into listening to Rick Astley's 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up". The classic Rickroll is when someone is tricked into clicking on link that takes them to a video of the song. Some examples are here, here, and here. An Obama-themed Barack Roll got more than 5 million hits on YouTube. And some kid even Rickrolled his English class and posted it online.
Which raises the question: What is Nancy Pelosi doing pranking America? In a nutshell, her handlers know a Rickroll video has a far better chance of going viral (and being written about here, for instance) than a generic "Welcome to Congress on YouTube" video like this one. In that respect, it reflects relatively sophisticated understanding of how the modern Internet works for an elected public official. The Rickroll "video was aimed at attracting more attention to the YouTube channel for Congress," admits Pelosi's press secretary Drew Hammill. (The new YouTube channels launched Jan. 12 pull together all the various YouTube sites maintained by members of the House and Senate.) And the cats? A play on the White House's BarneyCam, of course.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, who tussled with Democrats over the rules governing Congress's use of sites like YouTube and Twitter, saw the Rickroll video as an opportunity to offer some tongue-in-cheek criticism. "This is the same sort of bait-and-switch we see from House Democrats on important policy matters," wrote Boehner spokesman Michael Steel in an E-mail. "They promise something new and different, and then the same old tired, annoying stuff pops up. The American people (and the Speaker's cats) deserve better."
Within 24 hours of posting, the Pelosi Rickroll video had been viewed nearly 60,000 times and garnered some 200 comments. Viewers were stunned ("Not gonna lie, that's totally surreal"), impressed ("My faith in House Democrats has just increased tenfold"), not impressed ("It is bad enough that she is in power, and now one of her interns has to Rick Roll me.") and outraged ("CURSE YOU PELOSI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!")
The vast majority of videos on the House and Senate YouTube channels will probably inspire far less emotion, as they're really meant to give legislators another forum to communicate with voters. "You can host a floor speech, a press conference, a town hall you can really do a lot with this medium," says Hammill. True, but we're going to bet that not a lot of viewers will forward clips of a town hall.