Obama’s ‘open for questions’ experiment uses Digg-like layout


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On Tuesday, the White House website posted an open call for questions that citizens would like President Obama to address during an online town hall meeting he’ll conduct Thursday. Users can log in directly to the site to post questions and vote on those submitted by others.

Less than a day after the call was posted, the site has recorded more than 13,000 questions and 415,000 votes from users.


Allowing users to vote particular questions up or down is a method employed by social news sites such as Digg, Yahoo Buzz and Reddit, where the most popular stories rise to the top and achieve the most visibility.

The jobs, financial stability and budget categories each have more than 2,000 questions so far, and tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of votes. Users can scroll through as many questions as they like and vote on all or none of them. The vote count on each question, both for and against, is also visible. Because the voting statistics and the questions themselves are publicly viewable, the system manages an impressive level of transparency: Voters should know if the president actually chooses the most popular questions, or if he sidesteps any of them.

Each time a user opens a category, the software appears to highlight a random question from the category, ostensibly to give each question a chance to score some votes. A submitter named James of Bloomington, Ind., posted the most popular question so far, scoring more than 2,100 votes in the jobs section. (You can see how many votes a questions has received by mousing over the blue bars next to the check and ‘X’ marks.) James wants to know:

As a student, who like so many others works full time and attends school full time, only to break even at the end of the month. What is the government doing to make higher education more affordable for lower and middle class families?

As you can see from the image at right, the software doesn’t appear to be worried about highlighting questions with typos or ones that ask about, say, the legalization of marijuana. And in a free society, why should it?

Corrected, 9:15 a.m.: This post corrects an earlier error regarding the day the White House issued an open call for questions.


-- David Sarno