Home Will Social Voting Increase Real-World Participation? Foursquare Founder Says Yes

Will Social Voting Increase Real-World Participation? Foursquare Founder Says Yes

This morning, the new Foursquare Elections page went live. And when the polls open, Foursquare users who check in at polling places around the country will receive an official badge. If they choose, they can shout out to friends on Foursquare or their followers on Twitter using the #IVoted hashtag.

In the interview below, filmed at the NASA Tweetup at the Kennedy Space Center on the eve of Election Day, Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley talks about how game mechanics, shaking the hand of a “robonaut” and what has drawn over 4 million people to try the service. “It’s not just getting points and winning badges,” he said. “It makes your days more interesting.”

Can game mechanics increase civic engagement?

“We use game mechanics to encourage people to do things we think they’ll be really excited about doing,” said Crowley. “It could be traveling to different countries or seeking out new places or new experiences. I don’t think of it so much as a game. It’s using the mechanics to, you know, influence behavior and try to change behavior a little. And I think that really plays into some of the stuff we’re doing with the I Voted Badge.

“One of the things that we’re finding is that when people send their Foursquare checkins out to Twitter and to Facebook, it can drive behaviors. If I check into a coffee shop all the time, my friends are going to be like, hey, I want to go to that coffee shop. We’re thinking the same thing could happen en masse if you start checking into these polling stations, if you start broadcasting that you voted, it may encourage other friends to go out there and do something.”

The question for Foursquare’s entree into elections, in other words, is whether the action of voting, checking in and sharing the action will influence other people go to the polls themselves.

Making the Foursquare Voting Mashup

How did the Foursquare Elections voting mashup happen? “We worked with Google on this one,” said Crowley.

Google collaborated with Pew on the Voting Information Project, which provides data for about 108,000 polling locations. The Foursquare Elections page used OpenStreetMap to build a custom map for that data, which adds a nifty community-generated aspect to the page. The design firm that coded the elections mashup, JESS3, built the site using HTML5, including the canvas element. That will make it accessible to mobile users on iPhones, Android devices, iPads or BlackBerrys, a near-certain audience in an increasingly mobile electorate.

#IVoted on Facebook, Too

As Election Day goes forward, Foursquare isn’t the only service that’s encouraging its users to participate in the democratic process by voting. “Facebook is focused on ensuring that all of our users know where they can participate in this year’s elections,” wrote spokesman Andrew Noyes in a prepared statement.

Facebook users over the age of 18 in the United States will see reminders to vote in their news feeds today, including a link to the Facebook Polling Place Locator. While there’s no badge involved, users can click an “I voted” button and see the names and faces of their friends who’ve also clicked it. Facebook will be tracking the number of people in the United States who clicked the button on its U.S. politics page. According to Noyes, more than 5.4 million Facebook users clicked the “I Voted” button in 2008.

Technology, Privacy and the Future of Social Voting

Something that privacy advocates and voting activists will be paying attention to today is whether #Ivoted will evolve into “#IVoted FOR” as people sharing their choices in a real-time exit poll. As Crowley said in the interview, the data is available for developers to pull through Foursquare’s API. A great deal of information is similarly available for developers on Facebook or Twitter’s platform. An application that reveals who voted for whom, where and when would certainly be a “killer app” for campaign managers and community organizers but might well cause a few citizens to reconsider their sharing habits.

There’s also a larger question about the effect of these technologies on society: Will social networks encouraging people to share their voting behavior lead to more engagement throughout the year? After all, people are citizens 365 days a year, not just every two years on election day.

The early evidence, at least from healthcare, is that sharing can lead to more awareness and promote health. Whether civic health improves, as measured in voter participation, is the sort of outcome that Malcolm Gladwell considered in his provocative New Yorker article on Twitter, Facebook and social activism. By the end of 2010, the answers may be a bit clearer.

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