I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the shape of cultural and political discourse in the contemporary digital environment. And there’s been no better place to consider it than the current U.S. presidential campaign. Sometimes I feel like the campaigns are simply working to fill my lectures – Obama Girl, the CNN/YouTube debates, The Hillary Clinton 1984 parody. The latest volley was the McCain web ad that called Obama the world’s biggest celebrity, with flashes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, then wondering whether he is ready to lead. (Of course, there’s no logical connection between the two claims, and none is actually made in the ad. But whatever.) The video gets all sorts of play, making it to the top of online circulation sites like Google News and getting picked up and replayed by the traditional media. Then Paris Hilton responds on FunnyorDie.com, with a surprisingly dry and pointed response ad – that itself makes the rounds, enough that the McCain campaign has to respond.

But this note from Crooks and Liars is even more intriguing. A web ad released by the McCain campaign during the primary, trumpeting McCain as the “true conservative” in the vein of Ronald Reagan, has been removed from their site and from YouTube. John Perr notes that the removal is timely, considering McCain’s recent ads present him in his “maverick” role, a reach for independent voters. Not only is the video gone, but the press releases that originally accompanied the video are gone as well. But the curiosity is that the video is still available, and bloggers noting the removal can still point to it — being posted back to YouTube by others, available in Google’s cache, or in the Internet Archive.

Political campaigns are turning to online platforms for an array of modes of comunicating to their base, to undecideds, to the press, to donors. Posting a video onto a campaign website and to YouTube can happen quickly and circulate widely, and with any luck gets repeated on TV newscasts. It can take advantage of the social networks and email mailing lists being cultivated by the campaigns to keep supporters linked in, to whatever degree they’re willing. But there are some points of jeopardy in these online environments. And one is visible here, the way that the record remains, even when a candidate might want to shift the tone of their campaign or the emphasis on certain talking points.

It is not as if YouTube simply retains all submissions. Videos can be removed by their posters, by YouTube itself, or by YouTube on behalf of others (for instance, copyright holders). But, because of the material workings of the web (caching) and the efforts of users (saving the stremed video and reposting it) it cannot be scrubbed clean. What exactly is kept, and when it will reappear, is unpredictable. But it cannot be erased with certainty. And its return can be fast and vast, if the moment calls for it. What you post can always return to haunt you — whether its The Daily Show calling it up to point out hypocrisy, or bloggers digging out a statement once made and since repudiated, or a journalist finding a position statement the preceded financial support from someone who may have benefited from it. The contours of political discourse is only now accomodating this particualr feature of online environments, and whole industries (late night comedy, for instance) are emerging in the space provided by this phenomenon: the uncanny return of the once published and never removed.

Here’s the video: