Social networking site lets users run virtual campaign for US president

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Each day, in living rooms, bars, and message boards across the United States, debates rage and opinions flare over the upcoming presidential election: "Which candidate has the most experience?" "Which candidate will best be able to unite Americans?" "Which candidate will work to bring about real change in Washington?" Time and again, these questions have been asked and answered by television pundits; they have been analysed in editorials, written about in blogs, and tackled in speeches by the candidates themselves.

But in one corner of the Internet, another oft-ignored, yet equally-important issue is being raised: vegetables.

"I eat them, knowing full well they have no nutrional [sic] value and cannot be fully digested by the human digestive system. But its fun once in awhile [sic] to see what you had for dinner last night, the following morning. Why I put this in here....I don't know. Nutrition is important, but humans are basically more inclined to eat meat." This is one of the many platform issues of Jack the Wiz, an Independent candidate for President of the United States.

The Wiz is not really running for President. But he is one of the top-rated Presidential candidates on U4Prez.com, a website that allows users to run a virtual campaign, complete with supporters, press releases, and caucuses, which are lively discussions on serious political issues. They can even compare their rating with the likes of John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, all of whom have profiles set up. One blogger described it as "the MySpace of politics".

Candidates create a profile, where they outline their platform and expound their views on subjects ranging from global warming and immigration to religion and conspiracy theories. Just like in other social networking sites, candidates can leave comments on others' profiles; they can also rate other candidates on a scale of 1 to 10 and become a supporter of another campaign. All of this is factored into a candidate's rating, which ultimately determines who will become the next virtual President of the United States.

Eric Gurr, creator of U4Prez.com, says you shouldn't be fooled be the site's MySpace-like facade. "It's all about the politics," he says. "I think most of our users have accounts on MySpace and Facebook, and use U4prez strictly for the political dialogue." Wikinews conducted an email interview with Gurr, in which he discussed how the site works, how the Internet has affected politics, and who he is endorsing for President.

Interview

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.pngWhat compelled you to create U4Prez.com?

Eric Gurr: I was having a discussion with a business co-hort and I had suggested that the average Joe was probably better able to be president of the United States than many of the politicians considering running. This was back in 2006. I had at about this same time read the book Wikinomics. My first inclination was to create a wiki, on how to solve political problems. But the social networking side was a more natural fit.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngHave you had any prior experience in politics or political studies?

EG: No I really haven't. I've never run for office, and never really been a part of a campaign. I read quite a bit and I'm a bit of a polymath when it comes to history and economics. When I read a book like Freedom from Fear, or Modern Times by Paul Johnson, I check the footnotes. When I read an article on-line, for some reason I have an inclination to check up on the author to see if his facts are right.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngWhat goes on in a typical U4Prez candidate’s campaign?

EG: We have three distinct profiles. The quick drive by profile with little information, the interested candidate who probably posts once or twice a week, and the die-hards. The die hards of course drive the site. These candidates are passionate and amazingly well informed.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngWhat measures are taken to stop trolling and prevent heated debates from becoming too heated?

EG: In the first couple of months we had to moderate the site twenty four hours a day. As the election has heated up this has oddly become less of a concern. We never censor political thought, but we do put dirty word filters in place. The dialogue gets heated, but almost never crosses the line. I've been contacted by ABC News, slate.com and quite a few other news outlets and their first impression is that this is just a bunch of college kids arguing about things they don't understand. The reality is quite different. The debate is structured in caucuses, and we occasionally hold moderated debates between specific candidates. The average age of the candidates is about 35, so this is a much more serious crowd than you would suppose.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngHow is a candidate’s rating calculated? What specific factors are taken into account?

EG: Candidates must campaign. The core score is ratings by other candidates on a scale of 1 to 10. But this is only about 70% of total score. After six months of use, we developed a voting algorithm based on how members were using the site. You could literally have a perfect score of ten from members, and never get in to a runoff. You have to debate the issues, you have to visit and vote on other candidates platforms. In other words, you need to campaign. This boosts your candidate rank and overall score.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngWere any of the real-life candidates’ profiles created by the candidates themselves?

EG: Not to my knowledge. I have seen in the log files that many of the candidates' campaigns have visited the site. Many of the profiles from the real-life candidates were created by us early in the process. We simply pulled the information from their official sites. That said, many of the third party or independent candidate profiles are created by the candidates themselves, or their staffs.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngMany of the top-rated candidates on your site are independent or third party candidates. Why is this the case online but not in real life?

EG: It has to do with viability. We took a survey several months ago and found that many of the candidates who were professed third party supporters intended to vote for either a Democrat or Republican in the real election.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngDo you think most users take the site’s political aspects seriously, or are they more interested in the social networking aspect?

EG: It's all about the politics. I think most of our users have accounts on MySpace and Facebook, and use U4prez strictly for the political dialogue.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngIn your opinion, has the internet has significantly affected the way presidential elections unfold?

EG: Absolutely. The support and money raised by Ron Paul ultimately led to the nomination of John McCain. The more traditionally conservative candidates lost millions to Paul. This was entirely an internet phenomenon. Because of the communication capabilities of the web, people who have a strong interest in politics naturally migrate to the web. At u4prez for example, our members aren't likely voters, they are voters. This is true for just about any politically oriented site. Some of the candidates are picking up on this and using the web to deliver truly custom messages directly to real voters.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngHow do you think the internet will affect politics in the 2012 election and beyond?

EG: The influence of certain websites will grow exponentially. The big question is what will the impact of the bloggers become? We are rolling out a new feature on the site in the next couple of weeks to allow our members to rate political blogs. As of now, there is no clearinghouse for political blogs. We are going to fill a big gap with this feature. The print media decline will continue and probably accelerate. To help this process along we as members of the web community need a way to vet new content and content creators.

With some of the bigger problems facing our country, a medium is needed for more interactive debate. Television, radio and newspapers cannot offer any solution to this problem.
The election of 2008 will be the last where the web isn't the driving communication force for any serious candidate.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngIs there any political issue that you feel has been overlooked by the media?

EG: The baby-boomers. In January of 2008 the first baby-boomer became eligible for social security. In the next twenty years about 80 million more will follow. Extrapolating the math is pretty easy. In about fifteen short years the entire budget (as it stands now) will need to go to social security, Medicare and the prescription drug benefit. This of course isn't going to happen. This is a huge issue because 80 million people are going to be voting to protect those programs.

The media overlook the problem, because it is massive in scope. If we look through history it quickly becomes clear that this is the biggest financial challenge the nation has ever faced. But you can find discussion about the problem on the web.


Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngLastly, who are you endorsing for president and why?

EG: As a website, U4prez endorsed Ron Paul. This came from the members of the site. Personally, it's hard for me to visualize anyone running right now who has the vision and can put the problems facing the economy in to any kind of historical context. I can tell you this. There are five thousand members on U4prez, and just a handful of them fully support any of the current candidates. I'm starting to get a pretty strong indication that someone is going to make a real third party run. The Democrats are going to come out of their convention divided that much is now obvious. But the media have overlooked the division within the Republican party over John McCain. Ross Perot made a huge impact on the election in 1992, and there was relative calm in the nation. 2008 may really be the year a third party candidate emerges at the last minute and wins the election. It's not likely, but neither is it a long-shot.

Sources

Wikinews
This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.
Wikinews
This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.
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