Society & economy

Farewell W, aloha Obama! (or, Announcing PublicSentiment.net!)

Public SentimentOn the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, I’m happy to announce a new side project that Brynn, Michael, and I have been working on for the past three weeks called Public Sentiment.

At its base, it’s simply a site for polling opinions, designed to capture what people are thinking about a certain topic at a given time. The concept actually arose out of an informal study that Brynn and I did last November immediately after the election. At the time, the media portrayed a rather unidimensional view of public opinion — very black and white with little nuance (or should I say, red and blue?). We decided to take matters into our own hands and commissioned a study on Mechanical Turk to get long-form responses about what people thought about the outcome of the election — making sure to document who, if anyone, they voted for.

The results were illuminating and much more textured than one might expect. So we decided that we’d take a similar approach as President Bush left office and President-elect Obama was sworn in.

While we were in Hawaii over the holidays, we actually started working on the project and came up with the Aloha Obama and Farewell W names and figured that it would be interesting to build a site around this content… to really get a sense for what people think — right now — and to provide a public record of those sentiments (hence “Public Sentiment”).

There are two ways to contribute content: in short form, via Twitter or using our site’s Twitter-like posting feature, or our “extended letter” format (since not everyone can say everything that they care to in 140 characters or less). You can create either an aloha, a farewell or both. To post by Twitter, simply post a message to @barackobama and use the hashtag #aloha (or use “aloha” in the text of your message) or send a message to @georgewbush and use the hashtag #farewell (or just include the word “farewell” in your Tweet).

Here are two live examples (the first from Twitter, the latter, Mechanical Turk):

@barackobama I'm so happy with ... - Public Sentiment

Thank you for preventing a ... - Public Sentiment

It’s also worth pointing out that we basically paid about three dollars to populate the first hundred posts from Mechanical Turk users — basically to prime the pump and make sure that we had some good data to start with. Since people were paid $0.02 to complete this particular survey, we figured that it would model the behavior we were looking for from folks on the open web, thereby decreasing any incidence of incendiary behavior. I mean, I’m sure there are lots of emotions that people are feeling out there, but the hope was to catch some of the more subtle feelings — not just the vitriolic.

So there you have it!

We’d love feedback, thoughts or ideas. This will also be just our first survey of the sort. I imagine as Obama starts to execute on his promises, we’ll do follow up surveys to see what people have to actually say about the things going on in the news.

As an aside, it was also my first Django project, and I have to acknowledge that I was spoiled by all the help that Michael Richardson provided here (mostly late night sessions of me asking questions and then patching my bugs). I actually designed the whole site in Keynote first and then built a prototype locally in PHP. Michael then recreated it in Python and Django and had me work on the theme layer. Turned out to be a lot of fun — and a good learning experience!

Lastly, props to David Lanham for letting use his awesome icons. You’ll see them throughout the site.

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