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From Killer App to Killed App? UK Debate Interest Swamps Facebook "Dial Test"

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, April 16 2010

Britain was primed and ready for last night's historic, first-ever televised prime ministerial debates. The debates, however, didn't seem to be quite so ready for Britain.

Some 9.5 million people reportedly tuned in to ITV's prime-time broadcast of the head-to-head-to-head between Tory David Cameron, Labour's Gordon Brown, and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, in a country of about 61 million. But this was clearly a first showing. Not that the candidates didn't do well. They generally got high marks (with Clegg taken as a little bit of a break-out star). But stages on which they played weren't quite ready. The studio set, noted the Telegraph, wasn't all the way finished, and the lighting occasionally made candidates look like Batman.

And then there was Facebook's Democracy UK's mass "Dial Test" that we wrote a bit about yesterday. The online project was meant to empower British voters to "to rate the debates in real time and provide instant feedback on the performance of the three party leaders."

Alas, it collapsed under the strain. "OUR APP EXPERIENCED VERY HEAVY LOAD - PLEASE BEAR WITH US," noted the Rate the Debate Facebook page. (Apologies for the yelling, but that's how they wrote it ). The event had some 8,000 confirmed guests on Facebook, eager to punch the plug and minus buttons and instantly judge the performances of the candidates. The failure of the app meant, it seems, no export data that Facebook had promised to provide post-debate. That information is key to figuring out when and what was getting viewers' thumbs up and thumbs down during the match-up.

Here in the U.S., the advocacy group MoveOn did a something similar back in January with an online dial test of President Obama's State of the Union. Our Micah wrote about it here. That experiment have instant feedback on how MoveOn's membership was feeling about Obama's take on everything from the war in Afghanistan to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. MoveOn reported at the time that its dial test had 12,000 registered participants. Their dial test managed to stay up and running. They had hosted the site themselves.

Wired.com's UK sister site has a great overview of how people engaged with last night's PM debate online, from tweeting to robust Google searching on what was being said. Of course, this was a debate between three mild-mannered politicians; not, say, a jaw-dropping volcano eruption in Iceland. Indeed, debate-related Google searches were no match for Eyjafjallajökull.

But a start's a start. And last night's prime ministerial debate in the UK was certainly a compelling one. Expect that those interested engaging the country are going to learn from last night better ways to go about doing it. The Facebook Democracy UK hub posted a promise that "THE APP WILL BE REBUILT FOR THE NEXT DEBATE." Again, sorry for the yelling, but this whole thing has people very, very excited.