I spent a chunk of this afternoon at Bush
in 30 Seconds, a website from the people who brought you moveon.org.
The purpose of the website is to find a 30-second ad which can then be run in
Bush’s State of the Union speech. Between November 24 and December 5, anybody
could make their own ad, save it as a QuickTime file, and submit it to Bush
in 30 Seconds for consideration.
The organisers expected about 300 entries; in the end, they got over 1,000.
And even if there are lots of eager volunteers, it’s hard to approach 1,000
Bush-bashing ads and keep a fresh and open mind with respect to each one. Many
were excellent, but choosing between them was going to be very arduous.
So they didn’t. Instead, they basically decided to use the same kind of web-based
system that was initially popularised by Hot
Or Not. Once you register at the website, you’re shown a sequence of no
more than 20 ads, chosen at random. (Of course, you can vote on just one or
two if you like.) You then rate each ad on a range of criteria, ending up with
an overall grade. Even if each person only votes for a handful of ads, pretty
quickly the total number of votes will add up, and, with luck, a handful of
spots will emerge as the clear favourites.
I looked at 20 ads in total, and some of them were truly appalling. Others
were very good, however, like Bushopoly,
featuring a Monopoly set; If
the Bush Administration Was Your Roommate (pretty self-explanatory, but
well executed); and a wonderful little spot called Bush
Doesn’t Tip, featuring his former beer vendor at the ballpark in Arlington,
back when Bush was an owner of the Texas Rangers.
Three out of 20 is a pretty good hit rate, I think, and I can only imagine
how good some of the other ads are that I haven’t seen. I guess I’ll find out
when the 15 finalists are announced. More importantly, I have a lot of faith
in this process: it’s a lot more reliable than shutting a bunch of people in
a room with junk food and asking them to choose between hundreds of different
entries all of which start blurring into each other after a while. Moveon.org
isn’t being particularly innovative here: TriggerStreet.com
has been doing a similar thing for the past two years with screenplays, cutting
out the Hollywood bullshit to try and find the very best product.
Now, Jeff Jarvis seems to be proposing
something very similar for the World Trade Center memorial competition.
Don’t trust a small jury to find the best submissions, he says: "Viewing
5,201 entries is a daunting prospect. But by the time Web viewers get finished,
they’ll have whittled that to, oh, a few dozen."
But a Hot or Not / TriggerStreet model wouldn’t work in this situation. When
people are competing on the quality of their television ads or their own individual
pulchritude, a popular vote is a good way to measure quality. The ability to
read, understand and judge an entry for the WTC memorial, however, is far more
difficult, and in any case there are often very good reasons to dismiss memorials
which might look good at first glance.
Jarvis, in fact, doesn’t propose any kind of randomising device which would
ensure that all the 5,201 entries got a reasonable amount of scrutiny. Just
put them all up on the web, he says, and we’ll do the rest. But we won’t. His
own entry, and those of a few other people with strong web presences or other
brand names, would get quite a lot of discussion. And the vast majority of web
browsers, not wanting to jump into such a huge pool at random, would seek out
guides to the more interesting designs – guides which, pretty much by
definition, would not have been written by people who’ve actually gone through
all the entries individually. Take a design without significant traffic being
driven to it: the chances of its being discovered and acclaimed are actually
That said, putting all the entries online is not a bad idea. The simple act
of doing this could, as Jarvis, says, be positive:
What it does is open up the process, allow all of us to feel involved and
to help point to those designs that touch us and speak to us. There are bound
to be surprises there.
In addition, this also meets the jury’s fine goal of displaying all the proposals
as a memorial in and of itself. The heart and soul that went into those 5,201
entries will be, I guarantee you, inspiring.
And if it should happen that one or two of the entries do start getting a lot
of popular support, then at the very least the LMDC can start wondering why
that is, and whether certain elements might not be incorporated in the final
In general, though, the concept of using the internet to whittle down an unwieldy
number of entries to something more amenable to straightforward "which
of these is the best" comparison is surely an idea which is only taking
off. Imagine if we could have had something similar in the California gubernatorial
race: rather than everyone simply voting for Arnold because he had the name
recognition and the momentum, all those tiny individuals might actually have
been in with a chance. (Of course, you’d need to implement something like Single
Transferable Vote or instant-runoff voting in order to make this worthwhile.)
And if it worked in California, imagine what could happen in a presidential
race! Of course, if the WTC memorial is too controversial for such tools, then
a political election is certainly beyond the pale. But just imagine… maybe,
some day, there will be a way for voters to rank a large number of candidates
based on something other than campaign money and name recognition. Then, a very
minor candidate could win an election just by being ranked in the top 10 of
most voters’ lists. Choire Sicha for