Wednesday, January 09, 2008

E-Any Harm

Yesterday, while listening to coverage of the New Hampshire primary, I was surprised to discover that a number of voters had chosen candidates based on online quizzes in which they answered a series of questions about policy issues in an attempt to find a primary contender who would be the best "match" to their own personal views.

Like the online dating sites that these presidential questionnaires obviously emulate, there are also ways that the procedural rhetoric of these websites should be interrogated by anyone interested in how a seemingly neutral online interface may rely on hidden rules that could potentially produce an ideologically filtered output. For example, the Select a Candidate Quiz ordered its questions in ways that definitely suggested a right-wing bias, while Glassbooth's version put left-wing issues front and center.

To increase page views, many traditional news outlets also constructed these quizzes, some of which were surprisingly simplistic. The Washington Post Choose Your Candidate Quiz begins with the assumption that one would never consider a candidate from an opposing party or be a truly centrist independent voter by making one choose party loyalty before beginning the question process. Much as e-Harmony has been criticized for its exclusively heterosexual extremely gendered design, electoral matches can have built-in biases. Even worse, the ABC News Match-o-Matic makes its political theatre into a crass burlesque with the look-and-feel of a cretinous political whack-a-mole game.

I tried several of these sites, none of which gave me candidates that I would seriously consider to be among my top choices in the upcoming California Primary. Besides, I'm interested in the larger rhetorical context of how governance is imagined. So I am reluctant to boil down the rich oratory of the campaign trail to the binary yes-or-no votes of the simplest forms of representative democracy.

In their defense, several of these online quizzes allow participants to "weight" issues, such as Pick Your Candidate. By allowing relatively weights, it could be argued that such quizzes allow for more complex forms of deliberation than current electronic voting schemes allow, but they are also a black box computational medium that also discourages serious interrogation of their underlying architectures and constraints.

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