How social media can help shape society

Building on July’s YouTube/CNN presidential debate, has opened a new channel of communication between the public and the presidential hopefuls.

Welcome to the agora of the 21st century: 10 Questions is a people-powered platform for presidential politics created by Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry of techPresident and high school physics teacher David Colarusso, who also runs a site called Community Counts. Anyone can upload a video question for the candidates. The public votes on the questions it wants to see answered, and the candidates respond to the top 10 questions.

Will such a forum bring the democracy of the Internet to politics? OJR spoke on the phone with 10 Questions co-creator and self-described “technical guy” for the site, David Colarusso. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: 10 Questions is based on the technology of your site, Community Counts. How did Community Counts get its start?

Colarusso: Back in the beginning of this year, YouTube began spotlighting individual candidates on its page by posting a video of the candidate asking the community a question. YouTube users were then invited to submit video responses. Lastly, the candidate responded to these responses. For example, the first question was by Mitt Romney: “What do you believe is America’s single greatest challenge?”. I submitted a response, and luckily, the first two candidates replied to my videos.

It became obvious to us users after a while that there wasn’t a good mechanism for the candidates to understand what the community valued. We thought the community should have some say as to what they wanted to see the candidate respond to. So we said, why don’t we just survey everyone? That turned into Community Counts.

When the YouTube/CNN debate came along, I had the tools necessary for people to vote on those questions. We got a good deal of press coverage. We had a lot of users: 30,000 votes by 6,000 voters. That got the attention of the people of techPresident.

After the debate was over, we thought about what we wanted to see happen, and that turned into 10 Questions.

OJR: How is 10 Questions different from the YouTube/CNN debates?

Colarusso: There are some rather profound differences. The primary one is that we’re doing this as a people-powered forum, not a debate. It’s a discussion with the candidates. The YouTube debate allowed people to ask questions, but CNN had the ultimate say in choosing the final videos. YouTube also took away the features that let users see their peers’ most popular videos. Community Counts allowed the users to vote on the questions themselves, to prioritize them. We pose the question: Do you think this should be asked of the candidates? Community Counts shows that when you ask that you get serious stuff.

Another difference is that we offer the ability for the community to comment on the candidates’ replies and to rate whether the question was answered.

OJR: As of this morning, 10 Questions had about 76,000 votes and 160 videos. What is the traffic like? How do you add traffic to the site? What do you expect in the final week?

Colarusso: We’ll probably get about 100,000 votes by November 14. The videos come in spurts as different groups get interested.

The idea of leveraging the wisdom of the crowds – that a group of people together can make better decisions – works when the crowd is diverse. The two ways we try to get diversity is to make the audience very large and to reach out to different populations. We have a collection of 40 cross-partisan “sponsors,” such as the Huffington Post, Hugh Hewitt, DailyKos, BET. There is no financial relationship. The sponsors let their readers and viewers know what’s going on over here. We have a nice mix of left and right voters.

OJR: How can you tell the political leaning of your visitors?

Colarusso: We can only say where they’re coming from – our main referring sites (our sponsors) have a nice mix.

As for traffic, there are different drivers. Up to today, we’ve seen three major spikes. (We can tell by looking at the history for each of the videos – the top two videos would show these spikes.)

The first spike was our initial launch. In terms of unique individual visitors to the site, we had about 5,000. There was a peak of 7,000 visitors per day during the launch period.

The second spike in traffic, with a peak of about 11,000 individual visitors to the site, was on October 29, during Barack Obama’s MySpace/MTV dialogue. We had worked it out so that the top ten questions on our site at the time would be asked. sent an e-mail to their users telling them to vote on videos. It generated a lot of attention and traffic. The result was that a question on net neutrality shot up to number one, and it’s still currently the top video. The following week there were discussions on the legitimacy of They were accused of “astroturfing”. We don’t think it’s the right characterization. Sending out an e-mail asking people to vote doesn’t guarantee that everyone will vote.

We do have safeguards on our site – only one vote per IP address allowed. At the end of round one [on November 14, when the top ten questions will be submitted to the candidates], we’ll start an auditing process to further refine those safeguards.

This last weekend, there was another spike of about 6,400 unique visitors, resulting in the question, “Is America unofficially a theocracy?” climbing into the current number two spot. A blogger had posted an entry asking his readers to vote on two questions on religion and politics. It took off like crazy after someone dugg the blog entry. It got a couple thousand diggs, and generated a lot of traffic. So in the course of the weekend, it pushed these questions right up to the top 10. Certainly this is not astroturfing. This is not an organized e-mail list. People came and stayed around to vote on other questions.

We’re big on being transparent. We’ve been blogging each day about the traffic. As of today, we’ve had about 65,000 unique visitors total since the site started. We’re pretty happy that these individual people came to vote, and then stayed around to vote on other videos. On average people voted on about three videos. That’s promising.

In the last peak, there were fewer unique voters but more voting. It’s interesting to see how these numbers are correlated. This is the mystery of the Web – how people participate.

OJR: Have you any idea which campaign is more Web-organized than others, in terms of submitting videos to the site or getting their supporters to vote?

Colarusso: It’s a tricky question. You see, you might have a small group that’s good at mobilizing its members – but it has few members. I can tell you that over the life of the site, we’ve got in the top ten list of referring sites (in rough order): digg, blogspot [both from last week’s spike], Crooks&Liars, MSNBC, Hugh Hewitt at Townhall, TalkingPointsMemo, HotAir, and Conservative Grapevine.

OJR: One of the hot topics surrounding the democracy of Internet-based forums is: Are the questions better? Smarter? More original? More relevant? What are your thoughts?

Colarusso: I think they’re definitely diverse, and that’s one of the main things we’re trying to get at – a sense of what our community, our visitors think are questions that should be asked. So it’s hard not to succeed with that rubric [laughs].

It’s interesting to note that these questions are different from the normal questions. I think that means they’re adding something. Policy-specific questions, such as net neutrality, or questions about whether America is unofficially a theocracy are obviously what this community feels strongly about.

OJR: What can journalists learn from this public forum?

Colarusso: An interesting question, but hard to answer at the moment. This is something that has to run its course. There could be another spike tomorrow and everything could change. This will work best when we have the most number of users participating. That’s when we’ll have the most diverse sample. The lesson might just be that there is a desire on people’s part to have this access to candidates. We see a lot of student voices, students asking questions. We see the participation of people who might not normally feel like they have access. It’s entirely egalitarian. We’re not promoting any one viewpoint. We’re just letting people decide. I think people very much appreciate that feeling that what you get is the will of the community.

OJR: Will the informal style of Internet home videos put an end to the sound-bite-driven style of politics on TV?

Colarusso: One of our goals is to provide a forum to allow politicians to move away from sound bites. It has to do with what we’re looking for. With all these debates on TV, candidates say they don’t get the chance to give nuanced answers. We’re giving them a month to submit answers. They’ll actually have to live up to that.

Additionally, having the community rate their answers lets the candidate know that they have an engaged community. And we hope that that will also provide an impetus for a more substantive answer.

As far as the informality of the questions, I think the main benefit is to put a human face on people who ask the questions, to make people feel more engaged when they are watching someone that looks more like them.

OJR: Is anyone analyzing or tabulating all the questions you’ve gotten?

Colarusso: We’re keeping tabs on it – trying to give commentary as we go. We’re providing data on votes and history. I’m definitely interested in seeing what the final tally looks like. There’s a lot to glean there.

About Jean Yung

Hi there, I am a Master's student in Print Journalism at USC Annenberg.

After seven sublimely bone-chilling, atom-stopping years in Chicago (as an undergrad at the University of Chicago and a business consultant for Deloitte), I can truly appreciate LA's tedious sunshine!