October 9, 2008

Website Allows Users to Create, Modify Presidential Candidates

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Sen. Julian Polonius Foley Marcos DeWiki III will not be appearing on any ballots this November. However, if the research project of Prof. Tarleton Gillepsy, communication, Dmitry Epstein grad and Josh Braun grad is successful, he could unanimously be the people’s choice. DeWiki is the creation of users of WikiCandidate08.com, a non-partisan website that has been running since March. Any user can edit the candidate’s profile.
“This is both a provocation of people, and a research project,” said Gillespie. “If it never does produce the perfect candidate, I don’t think that means it’s a failure.”
WikiCandidate hopes to bring people from across party lines to create “the perfect candidate,” a presidential hopeful who, ideologically and personably, all of America could support. Josh Braun first thought of the concept for Wiki-Candidate after the 2004 elections, when he noticed the complaints of his friends and colleague’s about single policy issues or personality traits of a candidate. After beating the idea around with Gillespie and Epstein, Braun’s vision began to develop in the nascent stages of the presidential primaries.
“The context of the site reflects what’s going on in the real election,” said Braun. “We wanted to see people hash out those [political] issues.”
As planning for the site expanded, undergraduates, including Julie Bai ’09, were recruited to help design and develop WikiCandidate.
“I think it’s a really cool site,” said Bai, who is a web developer and was involved with the usability tests in the preliminary stages. “Through this social interactivity, I hope people see the importance of voting.”
A short registration form is necessary to edit WikiCandidate. After that, users are free to change any part of the site, which was designed to emulate real campaign sites. The candidate’s life story, policies, news events and even supporters are all controlled by the users.
With several hundred registered users helping to shape his policies, DeWicki appears to be a socially progressive candidate thus far. According to his “biography,” Dewicki is a Hawaiian-born U.C.-Berkeley and Yale Law School graduate, who practiced with the law firm “Swindle, Scrooge and Miserly.” He is currently caught up in the turmoil of a mortgage bribery scandal. Additionally, users are able to view how the candidate has changed over time. At one point, the candidate was a woman. DeWicki was also Mexican born for a short period. Discussion forums accompany each section of WikiCandidate.
“We’ll just let this thing run, probably through inauguration day,” Gillespie said. “Up to that point, it’s essentially up to the users to decide what happens to this person.”
The project seeks to answer several modern social science questions, according to Gillespie. Among them are how people bring up controversial issues on the Internet and whether wikis are a viable environment for political discussion.
Though the website has a modest number of users at this point, the popularity is liable to increase as Election Day nears.
“If you look at the usage, it definitely spikes around key political events,” said Gillespie. Gillespie also cited an international presence on the site, due to European press publications about the project.
User humor has played a sizeable role in WikiCandidate thus far. Various posted items include pictures of Hello Kitty and Stephen Colbert. The official photo of Senator DeWiki is currently a wild-haired middle aged man, appearing to be yelling behind the back of a woman who can only be assumed to be his wife.
“Someone had to get this started, and the way people started it was lightheartedly,” said Gillepsie. Wiki-Candidate has drawn reactions from numerous blogs and political sites. The hardest part has proven to be captivating the interest of users to keep coming back.
“It’s an interesting website, for sure,” stated Andrew Brenner grad in an e-mail. “While I think it’s a good idea, I hope it does not detract attention from the real candidates and real issues.”
The experiment’s future is based entirely on user responses. However, there could very well be a WikiCandidate for 2012.
“One of the things we wanted from the beginning was that it would be fun, it would be intriguing, and it would be worth people’s time,” Gillepsie said. “Let’s see it through this election cycle, and see what people make of this.
Gillepsie’s cofounders reiterated the inherent research goals of the website.
“From a research perspective, this project depends on many people’s participation,” Epstein said. “I was curious to see the mechanism through which people reach consensus.”
“A lot of the value is created in the process, not in the final product,” Braun said. “We’re really interested to see what people do with this.”