Monday, April 2, 2012

Americans Elect: Do Cheap Clicks Cheapen Picks?

Friction: the force of Nature we all love to hate. It restricts your gas mileage, gives you rug burns, wears away at all your beloved possessions turning them to dust. And yet, friction is also the force which makes it possible for us to move forward, instead of just spinning our wheels.

And nowhere is friction more of a two-edged sword than on the internet. For example, just ask the folks at Penguin publishers, who recently pulled out of a deal with OverDrive, electronic content distributor to public libraries. Penguin cited as the reason for its pull-out its concern over the lack of “friction” in the online e-book lending process. “From the publisher viewpoint, this friction provides some measure of security. Borrowing a print book from a library involves a nontrivial amount of personal work....The online availability of e-books alters this friction calculation” according the the American Library Association.

So too, electronic voting alters the friction calculation in democracy, by neutralizing the nontrivial amount of work which has historically been involved in voting in an election (getting off your couch or out of your cubicle, driving down to the polling station, waiting in line, signing in, figuring out how to use the ballot, and getting back to work or home again).

Advocates of internet-enabled democracy (including us) see this lubricating property of digital democracy as mostly a good thing. After all, America has had an increasingly abysmal record of voter turnout over the years, reaching a nadir of less than 50% in 1996. Low turnout effectively disenfranchises some demographic groups, such as the young, the poor, and the disaffected, and correspondingly super-powers groups which traditionally turn out in strong numbers, such as upper-class and older voters and folks who feel they have something to lose, thus constricting the democratic process. And limited turnout presents politicians with frequent opportunities to game the system by placing on the ballot measures which will selectively draw their ‘base’ voters to the polls, thus tilting the playing field to their advantage. All else being equal, eliminating the friction involved in voting throws the doors of democracy wide open, which has to be a good thing.

But there is more than one way to internet-enable voting…or, at least, there is in theory; in practice, Americans Elect Corporation’s way is the only game in town today. And therein lies the ‘rub’.

Americans Elect Corporation embraces what we call the ‘Click-Fest’ design for internet-enabled voting: presenting voters with an almost infinite number of opportunities to click on something, leading up to that one final click which represents their actual vote in the election. The click-fest begins the moment a new member ‘joins’ Americans Elect. The new user is presented with AECorp’s ‘True Colors’ survey, comprising hundreds of opinion questions (which many have criticized as being excessively limited with respect to the choice of answers offered, and some, including us, even feel represents ‘push-polling’ at its most insidious). We’re not exactly sure just how many questions there are in the True Colors survey…our most intrepid member gave up in exhaustion after answering over 300 questions, with no sign of reaching the end. But by the time you’ve taken the True Colors survey your clicking finger is well and truly limbered up for real action to come…you’re now programmed to click on every sparkly Javascript doo-dad in sight.

In the unlikely event that you are not yet, however, fully programmed, Americans Elect Corporation goes even further, borrowing a page from online gaming vendors, who in turn borrowed it from the work of trail-blazing behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner: the more you click, the more ‘Badges’ you earn. Click on enough True Colors survey answers, earn a ‘Matchmaker Gold’ badge.  Click on the widgets to share your love of Americans Elect Corporation via Facebook or Twitter and earn a ‘Paul Revere’ badge. Click on the all-important ‘Give!’ link and earn a ‘Rockefeller’ badge. Click on the equally important ‘Invite Friends’ link and earn an ‘Uncle Sam’ badge. Click! Click-click-click-click-click! Click faster, you muppet! Think less! Click more!

It doesn’t end there. In fact, it literally never ends. In the corporate web site’s mis-named ‘Debates’ section a member can click his approval or disapproval regarding thousands of (mostly loony) questions which other members have been encouraged to submit under the illusory guise of actually posing questions to candidates (the questions, and their click-votes, actually end up in the bit-bucket, ignored by the corporation).

Now it starts to get really insidious. In the ‘Candidates’ section – salted with the names and faces of hundreds of news-makers who are not, in fact, AECorp candidates – members can click their “support” for as many ‘candidates’ as they wish – up to and including all candidates. Vote as often as you like. The more you click, the more empowered you feel.

Now things are really clicking for Americans Elect Corporation. Its web designers know, as do all successful internet marketers, that the links which are presented highest up on the earliest pages of a web site are the links which will receive the most clicks. It’s a law of human nature. And the click-meisters at AECorp use this law to good advantage. In an unannounced re-design of the ‘Candidates’ section last month, AECorp slipped the name and grinning visage of then 5th-place candidate Buddy Roemer – AE’s only brand-name declared candidate and widely rumored to be AE insiders’ Chosen One – at the top of the first page of candidates. The fifth-place candidate, listed in the first-place position. Who could possibly object to that?

You’ll click on him. You know you will. You can’t stop yourself now, because 'all your click are belong to us!' Never mind the fact that this click is different…this click is your vote for the next President of the United States. Just click it. Click it good. No friction. No worries. Come on…what's just one more harmless little click, among the hundreds you’ve already clicked for us, hmm?

Maybe it's time to ask ourselves what internet-enabled democracy would look like if it was run by, say, the League of Women Voters, instead of by a slick billionaire's personal corporation? It might be just a little more frictioney, and a lot less like a bad game show. And maybe that would be a good thing.

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