The Internet Election of 2012? Votizen, Politix, Politify Work to Wake Up Voters

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proxy election—allowing people to “vote” for their favorite candidates for state, local, and federal office—that quickly attracted 200,000 participants. That gave the startup an idea for a way to overcome the traditional geographic fragmentation of its audience. “Lots of people go to our local forum pages, but the real question we had was what we could do that would appeal to all of our users in one place,” Tolles says. “In the last couple of elections, we saw huge amount of traffic, so we decided to double down around that.”

Tolles calls Politix, which debuted just a month ago, “a place to build your political profile by interacting with the news.” At first glance, it looks like any other site optimized for iPhone or Android devices. (A desktop version is coming soon, but Topix wanted to lead with the mobile version because “our biggest growth is on the mobile Web,” Tolles says.) It’s the stuff going on one level below the headlines that makes Politix different from other news sites.

Every story on Politix ends with what Tolles labels a “call to action”—usually, a question designed to provoke readers to leave comments. A story about a move to repeal “stand your ground” laws like Florida’s, for example, ended with the question “will tightening up gun laws prevent another Trayvon Martin case?” Members can “vote up” other member’s comments, and the total number of votes you’ve received shows up on your profile. So do your answers to the poll questions Politix publishes approximately twice a day, such as “Should states get to ban abortion?” or “Should it be legal for gay couples to adopt children in every U.S. state?”

As you surf the site, in other words, you build up a reputation and a public point of view. For some users, this might be a way to advertise their beliefs or advocate a position. For others, it might simply be a way to figure out what they believe, or to find like-minded people they can follow—all in the context of an ever-changing news landscape. “To become informed you have to engage and interact,” says Tolles. “A lot of political sites are doing something very static. You check out who your friends are voting for, but there is no compelling reason to go back day after day because a lot of that stuff doesn’t change. Whereas news is a way for people to interact all the time.”

In Tolles’s audacious vision, Politix could eventually become one of the main places where Web and mobile users tend to the political aspects of their online identities. He doesn’t think other social sites are well suited for this. “LinkedIn is the place for your career identity. Facebook is the place for your friends—but no one wants to be friends with the person who is only talking politics. The point of Politix is to have a central place for your political identity online.”

Topix has increased its staff by 20 percent over the last six months to get Politix up and running, Tolles says, and plans to keep the site around long past the 2012 election, as a forum for advocacy on many issues. The company is “out talking to political campaigns” about advertising within the site, Tolles says, but even if the ads don’t materialize, Politix could help Topix tap a new national audience that it isn’t already reached by its local news aggregators.

And along with other politics-oriented sites, it will help shore up the case for the Internet as a medium for political engagement, Tolles says. “I am a Silicon Valley triumphalist,” he says. “The Internet is in charge of the music industry. It is increasingly in charge of the movie industry. It’s a big part of consumer financial services. But in politics, we aren’t in charge yet. We as a populace should demand that the Internet be our primary access point to the political process.”

Politify: Privileging Data Over Emotion

If there’s a theme to the new generation of politics sites, it’s that they don’t have proven revenue streams yet. Their founders, like Tolles, are driven as much by their passions for politics and technology as by their business instincts. And that’s the case again with our third startup, Politify, which is the creation of three UC Berkeley students who work on the startup in their spare time between classes.

Politify offers Web-based software that helps voters see how the tax and spending policies proposed by the leading candidates in the 2012 presidential primary elections will affect them financially. Say you’re part of a married couple, both around 40 years old, with two young kids and a household income of $140,000. According to Politify’s financial models, you should probably vote for Barack Obama in the primaries, because his policies will bring you a net benefit of roughly $11,700, including $8,000 in tax benefits and $3,700 in increased federal services. Mitt Romney would be a more costly choice—his policies would get you $8,350 in tax benefits but would reduce federal services by $4,800, for a net gain of only $3,550.

“The main value proposition is showing the impact of a political scenario,” says Nikita Bier, the Berkeley student who is Politify’s co-founder and CEO. Bier, who is pursuing a double major in political economy and business administration, explains that he spent part of his undergraduate time in Copenhagen and Paris, studying Scandinavian and French tax policy. When he got back, he said, it suddenly struck him as odd that Americans—unlike their European counterparts—tend to join political parties based on their ideology, not their occupational allegiances. This means U.S. voters often wind up voting against their own economic self-interest. “Currently no one uses anything empirical when they vote,” Bier says. “The primary criteria is an emotional response. I think that is very dangerous when picking the most powerful person in the world.”

Politify’s algorithms break down everything into dollar terms. Using data from each candidates’ campaigns, plus an econometric model contributed by a UCSD economics doctoral student named Andrew Chamberlain, the company gauges the impact of each candidate’s proposals by showing how they’d change an individual’s (or a family’s) tax burden and federal benefits, including general benefits such as infrastructure investment. If you’re single and you earn more than $120,000 per year, for example, your additional tax burden under a second Obama Administration would probably outweigh any increase in federal benefits, which might sway you toward the Republicans. “In just six questions we can tell you what the ideal scenario is for you,” says Bier.

Politify has been developing its modeling software since last fall, and opened it up to the general public in February. Since then, visitors have run 170,000 forecasts through the site. The startup has gotten noticed by the Obama campaign, it counts Pandora co-founder Will Glaser and noted economist Emmanuel Saez as advisors, and just today it won $20,000 in the “Information Technology for Society” portion of the Big Ideas @ Berkeley competition. of Of course, whether you believe Politify’s financial projections are useful depends on … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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