Who Needs the Pundits? Debate It All Online

Posted September 8, 2008 at 3:38pm

During an election year many people start to channel television pundits such as Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews or Rachel Maddow. They spend so much time arguing over the water cooler that they start to talk about sending off an audition tape to a number of their favorite cable news shows. And now they have yet another way to sharpen their arguing skills.

Two relatively young Web sites — CreateDebate.com and Debate.com — have recently unveiled election-focused sites that allow aspiring pundits to debate each other online.

While the original sites allowed visitors to debate everything from the best video games to the worst sports teams, the updated sites focus on candidates, political races and local issues.

“I think the whole idea of finding places to debate like this online is catching on,” said Georgetown University political science associate professor Diana Owen. But, she warned, these sites are unlikely to have much effect on the national election.

Owen said she “always gets excited” to see candidates and outside groups develop new Internet ventures to get voters involved but that few of these, including candidate Web sites and YouTube videos, have changed the outcomes of elections.

Entrepreneurs like Bryan Orme hope she’s wrong. His site, CreateDebate.com, is gearing up for the general election by promoting a new politics alias, CreateDebate2008.com, which he and his partners launched in August. The site allows users to initiate a discussion over a political topic — say, Obama vs. McCain — and then support their views. Users argue for one side or the other and then vote for the best arguments. The most popular arguments rise to the top, while unpopular arguments disappear.

For example, in a debate over who will be the next president, user “Kneville” supplied the most popular argument in favor of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“As much as I think we need a change in the White House, I think that McCain is liberal enough of a Republican to be elected,” Kneville wrote. “Obama is too polarizing and too liberal for the majority of the country. ”

On the other side, a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) identified as “Sysiphuslove” wrote, “Obama was nominated in an entirely new way — with the power of the Internet behind him, and everything that entails — and he isn’t a serf of the big-money interests that have kept real change from taking place in Washington.”

Orme said high interest in the election made the addition of a separate site focused on politics a natural extension.

“Our target audience is people that are interested in the issues pertinent to that particular debate and want a platform to debate those,” Orme said.

Orme hopes that as the site grows, more users will weigh in on state and local races. When users register on the politics site, they can enter their ZIP codes and see lists of debates on federal races in their area. He also sees it as another tool candidates or staffers could use online. For instance, a candidate could use it to see what his constituents are talking about and even offer rebuttals to those who may misunderstand or disagree with his decisions.

Owen said the idea of these sites having an impact at a local level is more realistic. She said that similar sites in the U.K. and Germany created two years ago helped politicians see which issues their Internet-savvy constituents cared most about.

The second site, Debate.com, began as a relatively simple site late last year. The brainchild of husband-and-wife team Philip and Crystal Ferreira, it has grown to more than 5,000 registered users and was relaunched last week in its third iteration.

The Ferreiras’ site allows an “instigator” to establish a debate topic and a specific number of rounds in the debate. That instigator can then invite another user to represent the other side or wait for someone else to join independently. In the newest version of the site, users can search for opponents based on ideology, geographic location, gender or other characteristics. Once the last round is over, other individuals can cast a vote in favor of one debater or the other, ultimately choosing the winner.

Philip Ferreira said the couple’s own political discussions inspired the idea for Debate.com, though the site hosts debates on a wide variety of subjects. He said they haven’t done much to promote Debate.com at this point and have attracted users by word of mouth, but they will begin advertising now that the most recent update is public.