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.

About Jim Wayne

After three some-odd years as an advertising ashtray on Madison Avenue, an impulsive career switch sent Jim in pursuit of a life in the (relatively) civilized world of online journalism. He arrived at USC Annenberg in 2007 and is still struggling to understand Los Angeles.