As a result of TechFest, the BLEWS project from Microsoft Research got a moderate amount of exposure. Some of this brought another system - Skewz.com - to my attention (both via a personal email from the Skewz team and also from reading other comparisons). Skewz is definitely worth checking out. The motivation behind the site is captured here:
Skewz was started by a group of 4 guys with diverse political views who engaged in frequent political sparring. We tired of the coarseness of the public political dialog and the tendency for both sides to talk past each other. The goal was not to make peace between liberals and conservatives. Instead, we wanted to encourage liberal-conservative dialogue by improving on the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the discussions. We hoped that doing so would take focus from the cosmetic appeal of parties and personalities that generate allegiances and place it instead on wit and wisdom of intelligent debate.
Part of the user experience is to report your own particular point of view. This is done via an interface which matches a set of issues (e.g. iraq, health care, ...) with your own particular 'skew' (left/right leaning, and by how much). Once you are logged in, you can then rate news by how you perceive the skew (do you think it is left/right leaning and by how much). The result is a digg like experience with a richer set of features (digg has, essentially, a single variable whereas Skews has at least two depending on how you count them).
While the motivation behind the site is praiseworthy, I think they the team has missed the model of opinion by a considerable margin. Rather than model user opinion as being 'left on abortion', 'right on gun control', ..., they should have captured the absolute (not relative) belief of the user ('against abortion', 'for gun control', ...). By focusing on the relative nature of partisan politics and building an interface around the two party system, they are running the risk of further institutionalizing the polarity that they set out to remove.
That being said, one has to balance the realities of political media consumption, user experience design and so on - a number of the criticisms I describe here also surface in the BLEWS interface.
Skewz certainly appears to have its marketing resources out in force. This paragraph from the their press release indicates an interesting interpretation of what we are working on, intended to differentiate Skewz:
While Blews and Skewz both categorize news stories according to their reception in the conservative and liberal blogospheres, one of the key differentiators between the sites is that Blews is one-sided, static and passive, whereas Skewz is user-driven and dynamic. Skewz lets users participate in the rating mechanism, giving the user a more interactive and comprehensive experience. Skewz stresses participation which, after all, is what politics is all about.
Let's consider these claims:
- 'one-sided'? we look at links from self reported left and right leaning bloggers.
- 'static'? we crawl the blogosphere with a continuous real-time crawl.
- 'passive'? users can interact using search and other controls.
Skewz claims participation - the only real difference here is that we observe participation by finding posts that link to and discuss news stories, Skewz is about direct interaction with their site.
It has been interesting and somewhat frustrating to watch the reaction to BLEWS. The recent coverage in Slashdot is a key example. It seems that there is no amount of fact that can substitute for good old prejudice and ignorance when it comes to forming and declaring opinion. Much of what is written in the comment threads and elsewhere gets distracted by the word 'Microsoft' and is ignorant of anything that we have said about the goals, mechanisms and even the state of the project.