Friday, July 09, 2004

American Candidate (Showtime): Supporter Buttons Make Some Folks Confused

As the appointed date approaches when RJ Cutler, Montel Williams (and, who knows, maybe the cast, advisors, Paris Hilton?) will face "the music" (?) at the Summer Television Critics Association hype-a-thon, it's time to get a few more stories straight. It's time to clear away the confusion surrounding the supposed "votes" applicants could garner on their webpages, or the press might miss the point.

Let's get this straight: Those "SUPPORT ME!" mouse clicks could never have counted as votes (and were never meant to be).

Unless you're in the mood for herring this morning, ignore the cries of perfidy you see printed here and there claiming Joe Caulfield's high clicks are evidence of failed democracy.

Yes, Showtime and Cutler have betrayed their claims of democracy, but Caulfield's clicks are not the case to make – unless you'd like to give Showtime a way to dismiss your case.

But wait! some say. How could the support buttons not count? How could we possibly ignore Joe's 96,353 "votes"? How could AmCan ignore them too?

It's easy if you'll use your brain.

When Matt Smith of SF Weekly spoke of "votes," he mostly framed the issue right. The words on AmCan's webpages, words I've covered here before, caused confusion that AmCan, Showtime, and Cutler then ignored except in isolated cases here and there.

The carefully worded Showtime webpages created an impression that many people accepted without careful thought. Statements calling the online window dressing a "race" and telling readers "ON THE WEB: See How They Run" and "For the next four months, AMERICAN CANDIDATE applicants have the opportunity to build up public support on this website," by "campaigning online and in person," made folks think those support buttons mattered.

BUT anyone, including Joe, who checked out Showtime's American Candidate webpages and message boards, would have known that this could not be so. Supporter buttons are nothing more than a lazy attempt at interactivity. And as I've noted previously, AmCan is poor, in more ways than one, when it comes to that.

First point that you should see: The American Candidate staff never took the time to design a voting system that could be even remotely fair.

So, it's a simple matter to vote twice, or thousands of times if you like, by deleting cookies. And if you're really enterprising, as some were during the run-up to June, a computer program can do the trick and rack up thousands of votes lickety-split.

Some of the cast's supporters quickly discovered this little detail already known to many applicants. A poster in Keith Boykin's blog revealed the trick in early June, although you won't be able to see the post now since Keith's blog entries are gone, although I have archives of those entries safely locked away. (Was it me, Keith? Using all those wonderfully clueless comments pertaining to the selection process here in my blog?)

Second point: Even if Showtime and American Candidate had taken the time to devise a somewhat fair voting system, they still were so slow on the updating of the candidate webpages that supporter clicks obviously could not matter.

Think a moment. How do you compare the clicks for an applicant whose page was up in March to the clicks for one who didn't get a page until late May? Since AmCan didn't have the time (Or manpower? Remember, Rob said he was the only one on web) to add more than a few candidate webpages a day, it would have been impossible to call the clicks fair.

Third point: Given the un-interactivity and problems with the webpages anyway, just what would supporter clicks show?

Little more than a measure of the free publicity for American Candidate via radio shows and mailing lists sent out to folks already part of a constituency. The problems with American Candidate's design were and are too great to think that supporter clicks show the appearance of some new Abe Lincoln not simply preaching to his choir.

When Cutler told Bob Garfield, "We're going to take everything we do very, very seriously," it seems he didn't mean the "everything" pertaining to Internet interaction. But then, unlike their advisor Joe Trippi, Showtime claims their "revolution" -- that isn't -- will be on TV.

So what's the point of supporter clicks?

That they encouraged applicants who couldn't see beyond the misleading words on Showtime's and American Candidate's webpages to give the show free publicity.

And more importantly, that their poor design, and AmCan's lack of clarity when it was clear the public was confused, are still more evidence of a sham. One of a different sort, where confusion on the issues is allowed, and even encouraged in some ways, as long as it's beneficial to the agenda of those in power.

That's a shameful move to make -- especially when you claim your show will be both beneficial and important to democracy. We've seen enough of that BS already these last few years. We don't need to see that technique reiterated and reinforced on Showtime.