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In Search of A Feedback Loop: Grading the MySpace/MTV Candidate Dialogue

BY Michael Connery | Thursday, September 27 2007

After a few technical glitches, the MTV/MySpace candidate dialogue series kicked off today, streamed live from the University of New Hampshire, where Sentator John Edwards was grilled by college students, and held accountable for his answers by online viewers who voted their approval or disapproval of senator's answers in real time. Here's how it went.Cross-posted at Future Majority.

After a few technical glitches, the MTV/MySpace candidate dialogue series kicked off today, streamed live from the University of New Hampshire, where Sentator John Edwards was grilled by college students, and held accountable for his answers by online viewers who voted their approval or disapproval of senator's answers in real time.

Billed as a new way to empower (young) voters, partners MTV and MySpace promised to deliver a new format that would allow for more participation on the part of the viewing audience, as well as a dose of accountability for politicians who frequently use these forums to deliver talking points rather than answer the public's questions. In practice, the event was a large step in that direction, though somewhat less than it could have been.

Scheduled to start at noon, the live stream started at least 15 minutes late, and numerous glitches prevented some users - myself included - from fully participating. Viewing the stream on both the MTV and MySpace site twice crashed my Firefox browser, forcing me to use Safari (and miss about 5 minutes of the forum), and Mac users like myself were locked out of the instant message portion of the event, limiting our ability to access some of the more participatory elements of the event.

Despite that, the Flektor widget that allowed users to rate Senator Edwards' responses in real time was a joy. The widget provided up-to-the-second information about how the Senator's remarks were playing among the crowd, and provided instant focusing group data on the Senator's issue positions among a highly engaged portion of the youth electorate.

The campaign must surely be happy with the results. Senator Edwards remarks frequently netted approval ratings in the high 70s and 80s, and by the end of the forum, 90% of the audience thought the Senator had provided good ideas on the many policy issues raised. Preliminary evidence from Flektor shows that over 32,000 people have viewed the widget, though Jeff Berman, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs at MySpace.com, said that official figures on participation levels would be released within the next 24 hours.

Whether or not Senator Edwards receives a bump in the polls from this highly rated performance remains to be seen. Will high approval ratings translate into new votes for the Senator, or will Senators Obama and Clinton garner similar ratings, indicating broad support among the audience for specific types of policy solutions, but not necessarily support for any given candidate? It begs the question of as to whether or not implementing such polling devices during regular debates might be a more useful tool for gaging the mind of the electorate.

Edwards' high approval ratings - and the consistent disapproval he received from a small percentage of the audience - raise other questions as well. 90% approval for what might be termed "liberal" or "progressive" policy ideas is above and beyond the most optimistic polls, which typically show youth support for Democratic ideas over Republican ideas to be at most 60-70% (pdf). Was the audience mainly composed of voters who were predisposed to like Edwards proposals? And what is the likelihood that supporters or opponents could Freep the results in future townhalls?

While the insta-polling provided viewers with a much broader perspective of the significance of Edwards answers, and established a proof of concept for an exciting and more participatory way for voters to interact with the candidates on issues, the event failed to realize the full potential of the format it is pioneering. This was probably unavoidable during this first attempt, and due in equal parts to the human moderation of the questions and the fact that an astounding number professed the highest degree of support for the Senator's positions.

In the context of a debate or townhall, the real value in insta-polling viewers opinions is two fold: to create a feedback loop that can inform questions from the audience or moderator, and to hold accountable politicians who try to dodge a question, play down unpopular positions, or steer the discussion towards predetermined talking points. Since an overwhelming portion of today's viewers agreed with Senator Edwards and indicated that he satisfactorily answered their questions, it never became necessary for moderator Chris Cillizza to hold his feet to the fire over an answer, leaving one of the great potentials of this format untapped (which is not necessarily a bad thing - no one wants politicians lying or obfuscating their responses).

In regards to the creation of a positive feedback loop, the MTV/MySpace dialogue did not seem equipped to take full advantage of the direct connection they established between the audience, the moderators, and the candidate. All the questions on which the audience voted were determined in advance, and it was not possible for viewers to adjust their vote as the candidate clarified his responses or addressed follow-up questions. In addition, while there were topical questions provided by viewers at home via IM, as well as follow-ups by Chris Cillizza, very few of these seemed to be drawn directly from the voting results or in response to remarks from the Senator. Instead of a well oiled machine taking inputs from a variety of sources - townhall members, voting data, IM submissions - and using them to inform one another and act as the driver of the conversation, what MTV and MySpace provided was an informative aggregator of all of these data sources from which viewers could draw their own conclusions.

It is possible that future iternations of the candidate dialogues will evolve to address this question and create an even more dynamic relationship between viewer, candidate and moderator. In a conversation following the event, Jeff Berman noted that MySpace would "take input from users and other people and tweak [the format] more. . . we dont' have a patent on the perfect way of doing it, and after every one of these events we will do a critical analysis to see how we can do it better next time. This is about empowering people in a way that has never happened before."

I'd say that Berman and his team are off to a great start, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they upgrade this in the future. Whatever its faults, today's forum was far more informative than any of the candidate debates we've seen thus far, and a model for all candidate forums from here on out.

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