Category Archives: economist

Use of technology in the 2008 Obama-McCain contest

Howard Dean’s presidential run in 2004 unlocked politicos imagination about the power of online politics to shape the race.

While Dean’s bid imploded with his Iowa rant, Dean’s rapidly growing Meetup.com following in the campaign’s early days convinced the media that Dean was a rising force. The Economist in a story this week notes that Dean “changed the way campaigns are organised. Using social-networking tools, Ron Paul’s supporters generated a “money bomb”–$6m in one day, shattering the previous record. Huck’s Army, an online network of Mike Huckabee’s supporters, rallied 12,000 campaign volunteers. Both networks meant that Mr Paul and Mr Huckabee stayed in the race a lot longer than they might otherwise have done….

“Mr Obama took it another step, raising more money–seen in real time–from the grassroots than any campaign ever. In June alone he raised a near-record $52m, of which $31m were donations of $200 or less. Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, says that he has “succeeded in translating what was happening online to getting the vote out”. Mr Obama has 1.3m supporters on Facebook, a popular social-networking site; John McCain has only about 200,000…The Democrat is using Twitter, a social-networking and micro-blogging service featuring instant messaging (each answer, or “twit”, is limited to 140 characters). By signing up to Mr Obama’s twitters, the campaign at once signs up to yours.”

And this go-round, YouTube is placing a newly important role. Will.i.am’s (of the Black-eyed Peas) “Yes we can” video has gotten some 9m views in six months

and the McCain Girls’ “Raining McCain” video got 1.9 million hits in 4 months. Obama’s videos on his YouTube channel garned 52m views to McCain’s 9.5m on his channel. Several million of McCain’s hits came from his sleazy campaign comparing Obama to Paris Hilton ; which inspired Barack to launch his “Low Road Express” (mocking McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” mantra). Even Paris Hilton hit back at “white-haired dude” McCain with her bikini-clad bid for the “pink house.”

Barack’s speech on race in America has been viewed 4.7m times on YouTube in its entirety, while Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary sermons have also been seen by millions. YouTube moderated highly interactive debates among Republicans and Democrats during the primaries, and has now asked YouTube users to submit 2-minute videos explaining why they support McCain or Obama (with the prize being a trip to the convention).

And it is not just YouTube. The conventions promise to also feature”Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, My Space profiles and Flickr…” Obama sent an e-mail one week ago to supporters indicating that they could sign up to be the first (several million?) to receive an email or a text announcing his choice for vice president.  The real benefit of getting this million person list will come near Election Day: “What Obama is creating is this army of individuals, these grass-roots activists, who are out there trying to change the world in 160 characters or less,” said David All, a Republican techno-political strategist.

It appears clear that something transformative is happening, but not enough careful research has helped us to understand the social consequences of this media, other than the fact that YouTube and cellphone cameras mean that future candidates will have ever diminished chances of privacy without one mistake being aired for everyone to see.

But will the new technologies help to stoke the 9-11 Generation’s interest in politics (that Bob Putnam and I have written about). Will the technology enhance people’s ability to make connections with others active in the campaign or weaken those ties relative to “old-world” technologies of political parties and rallies and door-knocking? Will the technology make us more likely to stay involved after the campaign or not (evidence on the latter front may come from a September poll issued by the National Conference on Citizenship’s Civic Index for 2008)? And will the new technology exacerbate class and racial gaps in the patterns of political participation (or see this link) or ameliorate them? Brave new worlds indeed….

For full article, see Economist’s “Technology and the campaigns: Flickring here, twittering there” (August 16, 2008), including the fact that more of the online role comes from the millennials (those born between 1978 and 1996) who comprise 50m voters, are 90% online and two-thirds of whom are on social networking sites.

Social networking becoming more invisible but more ubiquitous?

The Economist notes that while social networking efforts haven’t found profitable financial models, there is evidence that they are migrating to more of a common model that is less proprietary and more in the background, like air.

“Historically, online media tend to start this way. The early services, such as CompuServe, Prodigy or AOL, began as ‘walled gardens’ before they opened up to become websites. The early e-mail services could send messages only within their own walls (rather as Facebook’s messaging does today). Instant-messaging, too, started closed, but is gradually opening up. In social networking, this evolution is just beginning. Parts of the industry are collaborating in a ‘data portability workgroup’ to let people move their friend lists and other information around the web. Others are pushing OpenID, a plan to create a single, federated sign-on system that people can use across many sites.

“The opening of social networks may now accelerate thanks to that older next big thing, web-mail. As a technology, mail has come to seem rather old-fashioned. But Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and other firms are now discovering that they may already have the ideal infrastructure for social networking in the form of the address books, in-boxes and calendars of their users. ‘E-mail in the wider sense is the most important social network,’ says David Ascher, who manages Thunderbird, a cutting-edge open-source e-mail application, for the Mozilla Foundation, which also oversees the popular Firefox web browser.

“That is because the extended in-box contains invaluable and dynamically updated information about human connections. On Facebook, a social graph notoriously deteriorates after the initial thrill of finding old friends from school wears off. By contrast, an e-mail account has access to the entire address book and can infer information from the frequency and intensity of contact as it occurs. Joe gets e-mails from Jack and Jane, but opens only Jane’s; Joe has Jane in his calendar tomorrow, and is instant-messaging with her right now; Joe tagged Jack ‘work only'; in his address book. Perhaps Joe’s party photos should be visible to Jane, but not Jack.

“This kind of social intelligence can be applied across many services on the open web. Better yet, if there is no pressure to make a business out of it, it can remain intimate and discreet. Facebook has an economic incentive to publish ever more data about its users, says Mr Ascher, whereas Thunderbird, which is an open-source project, can let users minimize what they share. Social networking may end up being everywhere, and yet nowhere.”

View full Economist story here.

The Smoking Gun: Friends influence your smoking and quitting

New research by Professor Edward Glaeser (director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government) and David Cutler (economics professor at Harvard) shows that people are more likely to smoke when surrounded by smokers.  But positively, it shows a multiplier effect of smoking bans: those who quit smoking in turn influence their friends and spouses to stop smoking.

More specifically, “individuals whose spouse faced a workplace smoking ban were less likely to smoke themselves. The estimates suggest a 40 percent reduction in the probability of being an individual smoking if a spouse quits,” the authors write.   Cutler and Glaeser think that policy makers should consider these multiplier benefits when they are considering enacting smoking bans.

For more detail you can read their Kennedy School Working Paper, “Social Interactions and Smoking.”

I posted earlier on research on the sociological dynamics of obesity, depression, and some prior evidence on smoking (read further down in this link).

Wikipedia: to delete or not to delete?

The Economist has an interesting story about the debate raging within Wikipedia about whether Wikipedia should let a 1000 flowers bloom (or in Wikipedia’s case, over 2,000,000 entries) or should limit the number of articles to ones it deems of broader interest. For example, should there be 500 articles on individual Pokemon characters or not?

It’s analogous to the debate about whether community is built top-down or bottom-up. The bottom-up folks “the inclusionists” believe that letting contributors determine what is newsworthy (or article-worthy) builds a stronger sense of community and participation. Top-downers (or “deletionists”) believe that, although the storage space for these relatively obscure or not well edited articles is minimal, that having too sprawling content leads to lower citizen participation in editing and improving these entries. An appropriate analogy might be that it would be easier to get volunteers to work on a small but usable urban park than blanket Denali National Park (a park the size of Massachusetts, even if people lived close to Mt. Denail in Alaska). Also, potentially Wikipedia’s perceived quality is only as good as its weakest articles or average articles and as the volume of articles rises and the level of editing doesn’t rise proportionately, average quality article gets weaker.

The bar has been raised, whether appropriately or not, for new wikipedia entries and as a consequence a greater percentage of new wikipedia articles get denied. As a consequence, “[m]any who are excited about contributing to the site end up on the “Missing Wikipedians” page: a constantly updated list of those who have decided to stop contributing. It serves as a reminder that frustration at having work removed prompts many people to abandon the project”

The Economist notes that it is getting harder and harder to draw the appropriate line around inclusion. “How do you draw editorial distinctions between an article entitled “List of nicknames used by George W. Bush” (status: kept) and one about “Vice-presidents who have shot people” (status: deleted)? Or how about “Natasha Demkina: Russian girl who claims to have X-ray vision” (status: kept) and “The role of clowns in modern society” (status: deleted)?

“To measure a subject’s worthiness for inclusion (or “notability”, in the jargon of Wikipedians), all kinds of rules have been devised. So an article in an international journal counts more than a mention in a local newspaper; ten matches on Google is better than one match; and so on. These rules are used to devise official policies on particular subjects, such as the notability of pornographic stars (a Playboy appearance earns you a Wikipedia mention; starring in a low-budget movie does not) or diplomats (permanent chiefs of station are notable, while chargés d’affaires ad interim are not).

“Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has himself fallen foul of these tricky notability criteria. Last summer he created a short entry about a restaurant in South Africa where he had dined. The entry was promptly nominated for deletion, since the restaurant had a poor Google profile and was therefore considered not notable enough. After a lot of controversy and media coverage (which, ahem, increased the restaurant’s notability), the entry was kept, but the episode prompted many questions about the adequacy of the editorial process.”

Other related Wikipedia items: Kevin Kelly notes that his answer to the Edge’s question in 2008 –“What have you changed your mind about?” — is the success of Wikipedia which he thought would never work. And there’s a fascinating insider account by Nicholson Baker (masquerading as a book review in New York Review of Books of “Wikipedia: The Missing Manual”) discussing the amazingly unscientific process of deciding what articles makes it in or not to Wikipedia.

See the Economist article here.