Just in time for election season, virtual debates at WhereIStand.com

U.S. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton agree 85 percent on 108 issues. Sen. John McCain and his Republican Party: 61 percent on 31 issues. Obama-McCain? See for yourself.

whereIstand.com is a new wiki opinion forum that allows users to hold public figures, organizations and themselves up to one another like baseball cards and compare the stats—their stands on various issues—listed on the back.

Here’s how it works: A staffer or reader poses an issue. Then, once approved, anyone is invited to weigh in on that issue and submit a yes-or-no stance. Individuals can then compare themselves to their friends, other users or even public figures, who also submit their opinions.

Well, not exactly. A public figure’s reported stance on any issue is only as accurate as whereIstand.com users’ ability to dig up and present the evidence thereof. For example, Barack Obama did not actually log on to whereIstand.com to offer his stance on gay marriage. Rather, user brianr posted the evidence plucked from the senator’s website and voting history. Users and staff verified it, and others are now invited to “take a stand” of their own on the issue… or even compare Obama to, oh, some other politician and see where they stack up on all debates.

It can be an increasingly fuzzy line between fact and spin out there. That’s where this (almost-)straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth opinion aggregator comes in. Unclear about what Clinton really thinks about dropping out after Pennsylvania? The evidence is there, in her words. Wondering where McCain might fall on an untapped issue? Create a new debate and wait for a whereIstand.com junkie to dig up the evidence. Not what Dan Abrams says McCain’s stance is. What McCain says McCain’s stance is.

Of course, it’s not all election speak at whereIstand.com, where recent opinions range from home-field advantage in the World Series to the circulation of the U.S. penny. But until November, the site does make for a handy political cheat sheet for our esteemed candidates. OJR traded e-mails with whereIstand.com president and founder Nick Oliva to find out more about the logic behind an opinion wiki and how it might help voters decide whom they really support.

OJR: Why whereIstand.com? What void are you filling on the Web?

Nick Oliva: whereIstand.com has a unique model whereby users post the opinions of public figures and organizations (and other users verify these) on the same issues on which members take stands. This makes whereIstand.com the only comprehensive source on the Web for finding the user-verified opinions of anyone on any issue and for comparing people to each other based on their opinions.

Additionally, issues on whereIstand.com are translatable, meaning that the opinions are readable, searchable, and comparable in any language into which they have been translated. The implication of this is that a Spanish-speaking user can see in Spanish where he agrees and disagrees with the candidates for an election in Japan.

OJR: All submitted issues are reviewed for accuracy by staff and users alike. Can you talk about that process? How has it worked out so far, and what sort of issues have you had to turn away?

NO: Members propose issues that interest them in any topic – politics, health, sports, etc. Members and editors comment and debate how well a proposed issue meets our guidelines – and suggest revisions to the wording. Among these guidelines are that the issue be relevant, that the wording be free from bias, and that the wording is “open” enough to find on the Web the opinions of public figures and organizations. At the end of this collaborative process, issues that have not been rejected are framed much as they would be by a meticulous polling organization. An editor then approves the issue and that’s when people can take a stand on it or post public figure opinions.

The best issues are those where there is enough interest that people of different backgrounds and views collaborate in the approval process. The community should decide what is interesting, so we try not to reject issues that represent a legitimate controversy or difference of opinions. The issues that get rejected are usually those that are inherently biased.

OJR: What sort of things are you doing to drive traffic to the site. And, once they’re there, why should they register?

NO: One of the things that drives traffic to the site is when members invite their friends to register and take stands so they can find where they agree and disagree. It’s remarkable how surprising it is to discover some of the opinions of your friends – particular those on which you disagree.

What most drives new traffic is the public figure opinions. When you search the Web, for example, for opinions or comparisons, whereIstand is often among the top results. For example, the following search terms on Google return whereIstand.com opinions and comparisons:

mccain politics

obama outsourcing

angelina jolie writers guild

jordan athletes overpaid

compare barack and hillary

All content is free on whereIstand and registration is optional. If you have taken stands on a lot of issues, and bookmarked the issues and people that interest you, you should register so you can sign back in and access these. A big reason to register is so that others can see your stands and compare themselves to you. Some of the functionality, like proposing issues and commenting on people’s opinions, is limited to registered users.

OJR: Aside from bloggers seeking a syndication platform, who else would bookmark this site? People who really like to argue?

NO: whereIstand.com does provide a platform for bloggers to promote themselves through their opinions, but it’s really much more than that. For example, when the community jumps on a news item, frames it into issues, and starts posting opinions, you can quickly see the lay of the land just based on who is taking which stand. Since public figures are tagged with rich information about their affiliations, you can also see where groups of people stand on an issue. Sports fans may be equally divided on whether Barry Bonds should get into the Hall of Fame, but where do “sports journalists”, for example, stand on the issue? To find that out either somebody needs to do a lot of research, or you need to go to whereIstand.com.

For people that are more interested in the opinions of their friends than of public figures, whereIstand.com provides a forum to argue, but also to interact, engage, etc. Some people find it more interesting to read and comment on a friend’s recent opinions than to see and comment on the pictures from a friend’s recent barbecue.

OJR: I like the way the site aggregates public figures and invites users to compare their own views. Seems like a good way to package the presidential candidates’ positions into something relatively digestible. How do you see that feature playing out as campaign season heats up?

NO: Many people that are following the candidates closely still find it difficult to identify just on what issues particular candidates disagree. Sometimes this is because candidates change or clarify their previous positions – changes whereIstand.com keeps up with. In particular, as the campaign season heats up, whereIstand.com makes things more interesting, for example, by letting people see how the candidates for state elections compare to them and to each other.

Again, what’s most unique is that you can compare any two people and quickly find where they agree and disagree. So, for example, when the campaigns begin to float names as candidates for Vice President, you can very quickly see whether they are a good fit and where they may clash.

OJR: Finally, regarding the tech behind the site’s comparison feature, how are you determining compatible positions? What variables you are looking at?

NO: whereIstand.com doesn’t try to measure “compatibility” per se, but rather points out where there are differences of opinion. The comparison highlights whether two people tend to agree or disagree on the issues on which they have taken a stand. What’s most interesting is when you read the actual statements made that support those opinions. In that sense, whereIstand.com is like an opinion index where you go to find the answer and then click through to read the original source.

Foodie 2.0: Chow.com adds social media to online mix

Online foodies might watch the Food Network and read Home Cooking, but these enthusiasts also crave a taste of the underground. They want a crab cake recipe their friends haven’t read about. They want to post and boast their own creations. They want culinary tips, ideas and feedback from common, like-minded cooks.

And guess what else? They’re not all housewives. They’re post-grad urbanites, barbecuing bachelors and dorm-room dollar-store shoppers.

A niche community of enthusiasts in the midst of a youth movement. Sounds like a recipe for a social-media overhaul.

And the food sites are catching on, supplementing the protocol e-zine format with souped-up community interfaces, user-generated content and third-party applications for the social networks.

The new-and-improved Chow.com, a conglomeration of Chowhound.com and the late CHOW Magazine, is at the helm of the foodie-meets-techie movement, flanking its vibrant online community with RSS feeds, podcasts, videos, Facebook widgets and, most recently, a soon-to-be-launched “wiki-recipe” feature.

CNET acquired CHOW and Chowhound last year, and the sites joined forces in May with visions of a fervent, ground-up community. Today, they attract two million unique monthly visits. Editor-in-Chief Jane Goldman took some time to talk to us about CHOW, recipe hacking and Online Food 2.0.

Online Journalism Review: First off, could you give me a brief history of the CHOW and Chowhound.com relationship?

Jane Goldman: Jim Leff co-founded Chowhound in 1997, and he sold it to CNET in March 2006. During all those years it was staffed with volunteers, paid for by the founders and a few occasional donations. I founded CHOW magazine with Carol Balacek, who ran the business side. It was completely unrelated to Chowhound. It was a print magazine, and the first issue appeared in November, 2004. CNET acquired CHOW magazine in April 2006. CNET’s intention was to combine the two, and we all started working for CNET in May.

OJR: At first glance, Chowhound.com isn’t much more than a message board on a magazine website, but it seems to be an increasingly significant piece of Chow.

Goldman: The site CHOW.com incorporates editorial content from CHOW and discussion boards from Chowhound. And yes, we’re trying to make the whole thing as interactive as possible.

OJR: Is Chowhound driving traffic to your original Chow content now? Vice versa? If so, how?

Goldman: Chowhound & Chow are driving traffic to each other, but Chowhound is the bigger site, so it probably drives more to Chow. Google drives a heck of a lot to both.

OJR: How did the CNET deal drive traffic to Chow? Was there an immediate impact? Can you compare that with the traffic growth when Chow/Chowhound actually merged in May?

Goldman: The site was launched in Sept. 2006 as chow.com, with the URL chowhound still used (as it still is) as one way to reach the message boards. Chow had been primarily a print magazine, so in one way it was a brand new launch.

There’s another example of two sites that work together at CNET: gamespot and gamesfaq. They live under one umbrella, but they’re quite different.

[Heather Hawkins, Chow’s spokesperson, followed up later with additional information: Chowhound traffic was not tracked until it came on board to CNET Networks.  (If you could have seen the previous design of the site, you would see why.  It had plenty of users, but wasn’t optimized for things like search, tracking uniques, etc.)  CHOW.com did not have a content-driven website before they came on board — it was a landing page for some repurposed magazine content and an invitation to subscribe to the print pub.  We can say, though, that traffic is up more than 240 percent for CHOW.com (including the Chowhound message boards) since launch a year ago.]

OJR: Would you have any advice for two other sites thinking about a merger or that might be trying to merge?

Goldman: Considerations when you’re thinking about putting together a couple of sites–about technical stuff & search engine optimization, about branding, about how you can count traffic.

OJR: Chow.com seems to have a younger vibe than its competitors. You’re sort of the urban post-grad to their suburban housewife. Was that the positioning for the print version of CHOW, or did it sort of come with the CNET purchase?

Goldman: CHOW is definitely meant to have a younger feeling. Our users are, in fact, younger than those of the other food media, by a significant margin. Median age for our people is in the 30s; median for most other food properties is in the 40s. Our design is a little less fussy; our stories are a little more offbeat; we care a lot more about interactivity and web tools. And our information and our sources are top-notch.

The whole idea for CHOW magazine was to serve a younger audience. I knew I loved the subject matter, but I couldn’t find any media that covered it the way I wanted to hear about it – food I wanted to eat, subjects I was interested in, parties I wanted to throw. And how to cook. So I started the magazine. And now, thanks to our contributors, I know why ice cream gives you a headache, and how to make my own pancetta. Our users are, I think, often quite sophisticated eaters, but fairly primitive cooks. We explain to intelligent people how to do things they don’t know how to do.  And why they’d want to. And we entertain them in the meantime. We also have quite a lot of men. Traditionally, food media was for women. The Food Network helped change all that. And we’re pretty much gender-neutral.

OJR: I read about a “wiki-recipe” program of sorts that you’re testing. Can you tell me more about that?

Goldman: “Hack a recipe” is a feature that we’ll be launching in a few weeks. You know how you’re always tweaking recipes after you use them a few times? Adding a little more garlic, using a little less butter? Well, now you can memorialize those changes and save your own versions of our recipes. (The originals stay as originally written.) Plus you’ll be able to publish your own recipes on the site. And, of course, other people will be able to hack them and comment on them.

OJR: You seem to have your finger on the social technology pulse, from RSS feeds to podcasts to blog tracking. Any more exciting social networking ideas on the horizon?

Goldman: It’s a lot of work to build a website that does as much as CHOW does. But it’s still got a long way to go. We’ve got all kinds of new features that we’re planning to put into place. More video, more restaurant mapping, more recipe tools, more interaction among the users.

As for as social networking goes, this is a very active, involved community. The quality of the discussions is unusually good. Part of what we do is just to try to keep it that way. We have experienced moderators who work around the clock keeping people on topic — and, occasionally, keeping them civil. And the Chowhounds have been arranging their own gatherings and meet-ups for a long time now. We’re trying to make it easier and offer some tools that will help.

OJR: Has the balance of community features like those and original content such as feature articles and expert reviews shifted at Chow.com? If so, how does that affect your position as editor-in-chief?

Goldman: As editor-in-chief of Chow.com, that means that I pay attention not just to the content and the presentation, but to the entire user experience. So if our Chowhounds are unhappy with the way the search functions, then I have to figure out with our engineers, designers and editors how to make it better. Fortunately, we have some amazing engineers who have excellent editorial sense.

OJR: You state on the site that recipes are at the heart of Chow. Don’t all food sites cater primarily to people looking for a great new recipe? Do you think you approach it differently?

Goldman: Recipes, right now, are the heart of the editorial part of CHOW, and restaurant discussion is the heart of the boards. But the home cooking boards are growing a lot. And we’re working on tools to get the recipes from the boards into the recipe database on the site, so they’re searchable just like the other recipes.

OJR: Finally, ever browse the Chowhound boards for recipes yourself?

Goldman: I definitely participate in the boards. I wanted a particular bottle of wine recently that I couldn’t find. I posted the question and in 30 minutes I had three good suggestions.

How to make Wikipedia better (and why we should)

I’ve been involved in a long debate over Wikipedia with a friend who is a respected journalist. His contempt for the project stems from his distrust of anonymous writers and what he perceives as a lack of respect among Wikipedia’s contributors for journalistic standards. He’s not wrong — those who follow the controversy surrounding Wikipedia know about recent scandals. More importantly, however, his views are representative of a large number of influential people who distrust Wikipedia for serious research.

Wikipedia is a good idea. There is a need for a freely available, reliable encyclopedia on the Internet. Commercial alternatives like Britannica clearly have their place. But, if only because users expect information on the Internet to be free, we should be grateful that some people are willing to volunteer their time to make that information reliable.

Are we there yet? The report that Nature Magazine released last December contended that we may be closer than we thought. It is also a positive sign for Wikipedia that prestigious organizations are beginning to take the encyclopedia seriously enough to evaluate its claims. In a follow-up interview during Nature’s Dec. 15 podcast, Jimmy Wales, president of the Wikimedia Foundation and founder of Wikipedia, said his goal is to achieve “Britannica or better” accuracy. Yet he was also modest about the report’s findings, admitting that he neither expected such a positive review nor did he think the level of quality was consistent across all subjects.

There is no question: Wikipedia has a long way to go. In order to make it better, supporters need to shift focus away from isolated articles and genres and first address the system that produces the content. By doing so, contributors will have more tools to ensure the reliability of their articles.

I came up with a list of six easy steps that project leaders could take to make Wikipedia better. It’s not conclusive, but these suggestions arose from my own research and conversations with people who are concerned about the project.

1. Consistently enforce the existing standards

In addition to dozens of clearly written policy pages, Wikipedia has impressive tools for tracing the history of an article through its “recent changes” feature. There are extensive guides on the website that instruct contributors on how to cite sources, format entries, debate controversial passages, and argue effectively. Critics who only know about the wiki format may not understand the standards that the project leaders demand.

The problem? Wikipedia’s policies are not evenly enforced. The scandal over John Seigenthaler’s biography was likely only one manifestation of this problem. Participants in Wikipedia need to find ways to uniformly enforce existing standards on all content. If it’s too much work, then questionable content should be taken offline until it can be addressed. Otherwise, there is no way to claim that the site is reliable.

2. Force editors to take responsibility for their articles by telling us their names

Currently, contributors don’t need to provide any information beyond a user name in order to join the community. Until recently, there wasn’t even a requirement to have a user account in order to edit content.

This suggestion will meet with the most resistance, but it answers the biggest complaint about Wikipedia. The current policy is indefensible. If there is an honest reason to remain anonymous (like the fear of political retribution), then it’s easy to provide an editorial workaround either by having more reviews or clearly indicating that the article was anonymously created for political reasons.

3. Supply references and reasons for content change

Right now, in order to change an article on Wikipedia, after logging in, all somebody has to do is type. Their changes will be preserved along with the article’s history, but the only way to explain the reason for a change happens after the fact, in discussion forums.

What if there was an additional field on the edit screen that forced contributors to back up every new piece of content they added with references and reasons for doing so? It would be another tool that justified the added obtrusiveness with its usefulness.

4. Make citations clear

Like any good reference tool, Wikipedia provides endnotes for authors to cite references. But these aren’t used consistently. Some of the numbered links in the articles (which resemble endnotes) are merely links to other websites, with no bibliographical information at the end of the article.

5. Let users rate contributors

Trust is the key issue — and online it matters even more. Wikipedia could easily make use of a system similar to eBay’s user rating system. Every contributor should have their own page with a list of articles and feedback. Only users with an account should be able to create feedback for other users.

6. Settle copyright disputes before questionable material is published

There is a page on Wikipedia that lets leaders debate whether an image or text is under copyright protection. The problem is that many times, the resource is already on the website. If someone is reviewing possible copyright violations anyway, why not do it before the material is published?

These steps are easy to implement from a technology perspective, but the cultural challenges are significant. Despite recent scandals, Wales said that vandalism and malicious editing are not the biggest problems the community faces.

Far more difficult is getting contributors who are passionate about their content to agree on what gets published and the reasons for doing so. Experts who join in order to donate their time and knowledge to improving content will be forced to defend themselves — and their credentials — against less qualified opponents. It is conceivable that such an affront to their pride will drive many away. That would be unfortunate.

Perhaps even more challenging will be getting the current community to agree to abide by stricter rules. But those who most appreciate the remarkable qualities of the Wikipedia community should be the first to pressure the project leaders to take the simple steps necessary in order to ensure that its articles have been fact-checked, are clear of libel and copyright violations, and meet certain standards of composition and organization. Until these steps are taken, they may never be able to convince critics — who could otherwise be valuable allies — that Wikipedia is more than just a cute toy.