The Internet Election of 2012? Votizen, Politix, Politify Work to Wake Up Voters
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whether you trust the algorithms behind them, and whether you think political choices should come down to the math of the material exchanges between citizens and government. But Bier thinks even a small injection of empiricism would “disrupt the electoral map.” He means that literally—Politify is getting ready to publish maps that show “which districts vote against their self-interest,” he says. “We’ve found some surprising things.”
Interestingly, there is almost nothing social about Politify, other than the fact that the company has a Twitter account and a Facebook page. For Bier, the most natural application of the Internet to politics is in the area of data and analytics—not social networking. “A lot of startups in this space have tried to make politics social—almost needlessly social,” he says. “Expressing political views on Facebook creates a very hostile conversation. There was even a study published a few weeks ago that said users who post frequently about politics get de-friended. Your relationship to government is a material exchange, essentially. There is very little incentive to make that a public thing.”
Over time, Bier says, Politify will work to introduce additional types of models, and make it possible for media outlets, campaign organizations, and advocacy groups to embed the software in their own websites, perhaps with the algorithms tweaked to reflect their own economic assumptions. The Sierra Club, for example, might make the case that every $1 in federal spending on environmental regulation yields $3 in benefits, while the oil and gas lobby would probably say exactly the opposite.
The startup’s ultimate goal is to become known as a sort of public policy dashboard for voters—“a Mint.com for politics” (Bier’s words, not mine!). Bier and his co-founders haven’t started to investigate revenue opportunities. But like their counterparts at Votizen and Topix, they have their eyes on the $1.5 billion that political campaigns spend on online advertising during election years.
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Are voters really data-driven? Is politics personal enough for most voters to make them care about having an online “political identity”? Do people think of browsing and responding to news articles as a potentially political act? Do they want to use their existing social networks to spread their political beliefs? Those are new and important questions being probed by the new class of election-year startups. The true test, for most of these companies, may not come until after this summer’s party conventions, and maybe not until after Labor Day, the traditional starting gun for serious Presidential politicking. That’s when we’ll see how many voters think of these sites as tools for taking charge of their political lives—and how many candidates see them as tools for reaching voters.
“Campaigns spend money to get votes,” says Votizen’s Binetti. “If you can deliver those votes through a new mechanism that is more intuitive, more scalable, and more likely to be responded to, I think that is a vastly superior method.” Only time, and the actual vote on November 6, will tell whether that’s true.