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The Game: How Campaigns' New Obsession With Social Media is Hurting America

BY Nick Judd | Monday, January 9 2012

Klout. Kred. Proskore. There are more ways than ever for people in politics to quantify their influence online. As my colleague Micah Sifry pointed out last week, very little of it has any real meaning — and yet newspapers like the Washington Post persist in joining in with toys like the "Mention Machine," a page that tracks news and Twitter mentions of each candidate.

The thing about attaching numbers to people's names is that it usually makes them want to make the number go up. Call it gamification if you want. The truth is that it's human nature, and as more people pay attention to social media, it is creating a sort of downward behavioral spiral. Candidates wanting more points on the social media scoreboard are urging supporters to tweet and post to Facebook on their behalf — spreading borderline spam on social networks and doing nothing to make the campaign season less of a horse race when that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. Rather than just making things worse, there are better things that papers like the Post could be doing.

That tendency to get caught up in scores and rankings is exactly the flaw in human nature that Ian Bogost exposed with "Cow Clicker," a parody of FarmVille-style Facebook games. Writing for Wired, Jason Tanz does brilliant work explaining the game and why Bogost built it:

The rules were simple to the point of absurdity: There was a picture of a cow, which players were allowed to click once every six hours. Each time they did, they received one point, called a click. Players could invite as many as eight friends to join their “pasture”; whenever anyone within the pasture clicked their cow, they all received a click. A leaderboard tracked the game’s most prodigious clickers. Players could purchase in-game currency, called mooney, which they could use to buy more cows or circumvent the time restriction. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement—”I’m clicking a cow“—appeared on their Facebook newsfeed.

In just a few months, the uninteresting-by-design game — “I didn’t set out to make it fun,” Bogost told Tanz — accumulated 50,000 users. Bogost had built the thing to prove that something you might call a "game" in many cases could really just be a systemic exploitation of human impulse, made easier by how effortless it is to quantify something on the Internet, then share it.

As a sort of side-quest in the game "win the most votes," campaigns are developing an obsession with social media metrics. Ginning up a large number of retweets or mentions worked for Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain as part of a media strategy that pushed them back into public view, and from there into a few more fund-raising dollars. It should be no surprise, then, that the latest pair of almost-credible outliers, Jon Huntsman and the longer-shot former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, are turning online for help.

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