Web 2.0 Project Taps 'Wisdom of the Crowd' to Probe Presidential Contenders

The web-hip "community-driven" presidential debates touted by the television networks have been a disappointment so far. The events may use voter-submitted videos, instant messages and e-mails, but all that packet juice is poured into the same old, tired broadcast formula that appoints journalists as the arbiters of which questions candidates are asked -- and relies on the usual small circle of pundits to analyze the answers.

A new effort aims to change all that. Launched Wednesday, 10 Questions is soliciting video questions on four of the most popular video-sharing sites and placing them in a Digg-like tool that lets the public vote them up or down. Ultimately the 10 highest-ranking videos will be submitted unedited to each of the presidential candidates, who can then produce a video response.

"We're hacking into politics, and using interactivity and the power of online video to involve a lot more people in the process," says Micah Sifry, co-founder of TechPresident, an internet-electioneering website and annual conference.

Backed by TechPresident with some help from The New York Times' editorial board, 10 Questions has partnered with top political blogs on the left and right. Sifry hopes that some variation of the community-driven model might be incorporated in the final round of debates between the two major-party candidates in next year's general election.

"The lessons learned could be used in a lot of ways -- the process may be the most important part of this," says Sifry. "We're in the middle of a transition: In the same way we watched what YouTube did, and we watched what MySpace and MTV did, they're going to watch us."

In the CNN-YouTube debate in July, it was CNN producers who chose the online-video questions to present to candidates. Similarly, in the ongoing MySpace and MTV forums, journalists serve as filters between voters and candidates. TechPresident's goal is to provide U.S. voters the leading role in controlling the much-touted national dialogue with the presidential candidates.

The project's organizers are hoping to do that with social software designed to enable "the crowd" to speak responsibly with a collaborative voice. They plan to keep their online voting system simple, and audit the tallied votes.

The point, says Sifry, is to create a large-scale online forum with the same rhetorical attributes that characterize physical town-hall meetings, instead of tweaking a commercial broadcast medium that provides candidates with 30 seconds to advertise their personalities and positions.

The project grew out of a collaboration between TechPresident and David Colarusso, a 28-year-old Somerville, Massachusetts, physics teacher. Colarusso participated in YouTube's Spotlight feature earlier this year.

Spotlight allowed voters to post video questions for the presidential candidates on YouTube. The candidates then picked which questions they wanted to answer, and posted their video responses online. The feature spanned several weeks.

Both Democrat John Edwards and Republican candidate Mitt Romney posted video responses to Colarusso's questions. But Colarusso found the candidates' responses lacking. Both he and other Spotlight participants thought that YouTube should have had a feature that enabled them to express dissatisfaction with a candidate's answer.

He ended up building the feature himself at a site he established, called Community Counts. He urged CNN producers to turn over control of the video selection in the YouTube-CNN debate to his online community, but was ignored. Community Counts logged 6,000 unique visitors and 30,000 votes by the time the Democratic round of the debate was over. The site's voting features have now been incorporated into 10 Questions.

In explaining the importance of eliciting the electorate's input versus that of a few "experts" earlier this year, Colarusso alluded to The New Yorker writer James Surowiecki's popular book The Wisdom of Crowds. The book posits that if four basic conditions are met, a crowd's "collective intelligence" will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts. The conditions are: diverse opinion among the crowd's members, members' independence from each other, a good method for aggregating opinions and decentralization.

Voters have until Nov. 14 to submit their video questions through YouTube, MySpace, Yahoo Video or Blip.tv, and to vote their peers' questions up or down. Users submit their videos by tagging them "10Questions," and the project picks them up automatically.

The candidates will have from Nov. 17 until the end of the year to post video responses to the 10 questions. Voters will then be given the chance to vote those answers up or down to decide which candidates gave the best answer to each.

"Candidates will be able to answer in detail and without the time limits imposed by traditional televised or on-stage debates," Sifry explains. "And citizens in turn will be able to give the candidates feedback on whether they actually answer those questions."

Top media and political blogging sites both on the right and the left have agreed to promote the forum. DailyKos, the web's most-widely trafficked U.S. political blog, is a sponsor, as are the left-leaning Air America and The Huffington Post, along with a coterie of their right-wing counterparts, including Townhall.com, Michelle Malkin, Right Wing News and Red State. MSNBC, The New York Observer and Politico are also sponsors. Some of the user videos may end up featured on MSNBC's political programs, says Sifry.

The organizers have designed the forum to specifically prevent users from gaming the system, and they plan on auditing the votes. Submitted questions, for example, must be addressed to all of the presidential candidates to be eligible for voting. And only one ballot per IP address is allowed in each round.

Nevertheless, at least one observer is skeptical that this method of interaction will elevate the dialogue between the community and the presidential candidates, and make it more informative.

"With the complexity of politics, it's completely unclear to me how this would work," says Dan Ariely, Alfred P. Sloan professor of behavioral economics at MIT and author of the forthcoming book Predictably Irrational. "I don't even know how people would know the relevant questions to ask."

His point: Very specific conditions would have to be met for TechPresident's idea to work. Experts in the field of warfare and Middle East policy would have to be in the crowd, for example, to judge which question on the war in Iraq is worth asking.

"We're facing a huge problem in Iraq, and I think you need someone (asking questions) who dedicates their life to thinking about how someone is going to get us out of this," he says.

"If you asked people if there really were weapons of mass destruction, would you get closer to the truth? I don't think so," he adds. "In this country, people just don't know the facts."

The candidates have yet to commit time to the project, although Sifry says TechPresident has held informal discussions with the campaigns. But this project isn't about getting their permission to participate, he says. Once one candidate agrees to respond to the audience of thousands and even millions, other candidates may feel the need to, also.

"They won't be able to resist the opportunity of hundreds of thousands of people waiting to hear them speak about their policies," he predicts. "It's, 'Here we are. Where are you?'"