Don’t scrap the squiggle!

by Daniel on October 17, 2008

Nate Silver wants to scrap the “squiggly” audience reaction dials during Presidential debates. My instinctive reaction to this is “step away from the bacon, son, leave the bacon out of this. I love the crawler and think that it really helps you understand what’s going on in the debates – in particular, it helps you take one step back from your own prejudices. It’s also just about the only input into debate commentary that comes more or less unmediated; the anonymous “undecided” focus group participants might be dumb or irrational, but they’re at least not pushing an agenda. Raw data is always good to have – although Nate’s sample size points are well made, I actually doubt how much potential there is for practical error to be introduced, given that one doesn’t actually look to the crawler for straightforward yes/no answers to questions, just for an overall impression of how the participants are going over.

My only complaint about the crawler is that CNN removes it from the screen when the debate finishes. I absolutely wish that they continued to show the favourable/unfavourable reactions of the dial-testing focus group to the talking heads on the news afterwards; you’d be able to see the worm plunging every time Wolf Blitzer opened his gob.. I suspect a few uncomfortable home truths would arise out of that one. In general, more new programs should use dial-testing crawlers. And not just news, thinking about it; why doesn’t Big Brother have a crawler, since it’s also basically a popularity contest? Or the Eurovision? Chat shows would be great entertainment if you could see boring or vain starlets bleeding their popularity away in real time. At this precise moment, I can’t think of a single program on TV that wouldn’t be improved by having a dial-test at the bottom of the screen.

{ 39 comments }

1

harry b 10.17.08 at 2:50 pm

Better still, have the squiggly dial not just on your screen, but on a monitor visible to the talk show/Big Brother/Presidential debate participants.

2

engels 10.17.08 at 3:02 pm

I think the gladiators (sorry, “presidental candidates”) should be wired up to a machine like the one in Never Say Never Again which gives them painful but completely harmless electric shock which grow in intensity as their popularity with the audience plummets.

3

Eszter Hargittai 10.17.08 at 3:05 pm

That thingie wasn’t enough to convince me to watch the debates on CNN. But your idea of introducing it in other contexts is intriguing indeed.

4

christian h. 10.17.08 at 3:06 pm

Phew. After the first paragraph, I thought this post was serious. I need my irony detector checked – or possibly, just coffee to start it up.

5

lemuel pitkin 10.17.08 at 3:10 pm

After the first paragraph, I thought this post was serious.

I think it is serious — for a certain dsquared-contrarian value of serious. Anyway, just be grateful he’s not he’s not telling us that Ayn Rand is a perfectly good novelist this time…

6

Daniel 10.17.08 at 3:15 pm

Both paragraphs are meant entirely seriously. The crawler is good entertainment and makes a positive contribution to our understanding. Further to engels #2, by the way, I entirely agree; I think I suggested something similar in the comments to Blood & Treasure once.

7

Daniel 10.17.08 at 3:28 pm

actually I do disagree with engels on the “completely harmless” bit; I am prepared to trust to the judgement of the wisdom of quite small crowds, plus their compassion as demonstrated by S Milgrom and let the shock go up to a lethal dose if necessary. You could also presumably rig up some sort of Rube Goldberg arrangement of vibrators and chocolate to give them positive feedback when the dials were rising.

8

Eszter Hargittai 10.17.08 at 3:31 pm

Before trusting them, I’d want to know a bit more about how these undecided participants are recruited.

9

Delicious Pundit 10.17.08 at 3:41 pm

Can’t stand ‘em, won’t watch. I know too many people whose TV shows have been torpedoed by those dials when wielded by a focus group in Sherman Oaks or Fort Lee. (The great Ken Levine talks about this a little bit. There’s a scene in the Poochie episode of The Simpsons that touches on this kind of thing too.)

10

Sk 10.17.08 at 3:47 pm

“It’s also just about the only input into debate commentary that comes more or less unmediated;”

See Eszter’s comment, above.

Sk

11

Tracy W 10.17.08 at 3:53 pm

On the possibly-wrong assumption that by “single programme” you meant to include fiction, a long-lasting, effective story teller will tend to create characters that you care about deeply, and then do terrible things to them, which any audience member with an ounce of humanity will wish didn’t happen. Yet, the story is more compelling because horrible things happen. William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet being of course the famous example, but Joss Wheldon clearly has a sadistic streak to equal Shakespeare. Wouldn’t a dial-test wreck those sorts of shows?

12

John Holbo 10.17.08 at 4:01 pm

I think it’s obvious that EVERYONE should have a crawler installed on the back of their head, where everyone else can see what everyone else is thinking about you. Except you.

13

rea 10.17.08 at 4:02 pm

Wouldn’t a dial-test wreck those sorts of shows?

No–it would simply require more cuddly kittens and cute ponies in shows, and who could possibly object to that? Only some kind of nihlist . . .

14

engels 10.17.08 at 4:18 pm

I think it’s obvious that EVERYONE should have a crawler installed on the back of their head, where everyone else can see what everyone else is thinking about you.

Do you mean like this? Or like this?

15

Maria 10.17.08 at 4:20 pm

Stephen Bury (aka Neal Stephenson and his uncle, Frederick George) wrote a novel called Interface where the president’s brain was wired into realtime issue polls and approval ratings. Great premise, so so novel, scary concept.

16

Maria 10.17.08 at 4:21 pm

It’s too bad we don’t have a good name for the squiggly line thingummy wotsit. In Australia, they call it The Worm.

17

Daniel 10.17.08 at 4:33 pm

Wouldn’t a dial-test wreck those sorts of shows?

Perhaps I am a warped person, but the idea of Romeo and Juliet being staged at the Globe with a giant visible crawler above the stage to indicate whether the audience felt happy or sad, strikes me as a genuinely hilarious idea.

18

MarkUp 10.17.08 at 5:26 pm

”whether the audience felt happy or sad, strikes me as a genuinely hilarious idea.”

Wouldn’t that though demand a second Rodman {The Worm} line to indicate the source of the the happy/sad reaction so those sad during the ‘happy’ scenes can indicate say poor acting or mental defect as the root?

19

ArC 10.17.08 at 5:42 pm

A long long time ago, MAD TV had a sketch about a sitcom that was live and reacted in real time to viewer response. It was a lot like what Ken Levine wrote about dial groups…

20

John Emerson 10.17.08 at 6:41 pm

I was instantly convinced by the crawler, which I experience second-hand through Dsquared’s commentary. It’s like one of those miracle bug sprays you see advertised. It destroys whole worlds of noxious commentators.

21

john i 10.17.08 at 6:43 pm

I like the worm. In terms of sample size, I don’t see why these dial turners (worm herdsman) couldn’t be quite a large group. Heck, allow folks to dial in through the internet and use their up and down arrows. Does anyone know if the folks can see the worm they are contributing to, (which would cause herd-like worm herding tendencies?) I would hope not. I would also suspect that a much larger group would lead to flatter worms, but it would be interesting to know.

22

John Emerson 10.17.08 at 6:47 pm

It should be the post-debate commentators who are wired to the results. If they guess the audience wrong, they should receive aversive reinforcement, such as being dropped into a small pen jammed full of starving hogs.

23

Michael Drake 10.17.08 at 7:16 pm

I think the squiggly is useful only if undecideds are plotted along with Democrats and Republicans. Otherwise, the movement is too hard reliably to interpret.

E.g., candidate C1 is talking, and quotes C2′s remarks (remarks that happen to reflect badly on C2). Independent reaction registers negative. Is this negative affect directed at C1? Probably not. But the result would be less equivocal if we could see how Democrats and Republicans were reacting.

In sum, it’s much more informative to see that undecideds are trending with party X at any given point than that they are registering such-and-such level of positive or negative response.

24

Righteous Bubba 10.17.08 at 7:31 pm

The worms could be like captioning on TV, but sortable and viewable according to tags set by those affecting the worm. Hit the worm button on the remote and see if you’re really getting the jokes on that cartoon your kids watch all the time.

25

Barry Freed 10.17.08 at 7:47 pm

I think it’s obvious that EVERYONE should have a crawler installed on the back of their head, where everyone else can see what everyone else is thinking about you. Except you

Yes! With built-in Tasers as per engels comment above.

26

djw 10.17.08 at 9:17 pm

I find the notion of a crawler in the classroom, dials in my students hands, to be deeply terrifying, so I’m going to have to dissent to this seemingly reasonable expansion on slippery slope grounds.

27

Daniel 10.17.08 at 9:33 pm

It should be the post-debate commentators who are wired to the results. If they guess the audience wrong, they should receive aversive reinforcement, such as being dropped into a small pen jammed full of starving hogs.

If I unexpectedly die, I hereby will John all my blogs.

28

seth edenbaum 10.17.08 at 10:03 pm

“Better still, have the squiggly dial not just on your screen, but on a monitor visible to the talk show/Big Brother/Presidential debate participants.”
When interpersonal communication is based entirely on telling people what they want to hear, then it’s no longer communication at all but a feedback loop. Another reason to have less polling and to work for a more educated electorate. As it is the lowest common dominator is getting lower and lower.
what’s the difference between having opinions while being aware of the opinions of others, understanding the need to be flexible… and pandering?
Flexibility is a form of resilience, pandering is passive.
People should learn to be aware of each other. If a politician can’t read a room one his own then he’s not a good politician.
Those little rolling carts that allow babies to stand upright and push themselves around the room have been shown to retard the growth of motor function.
The squiggle does the same thing with the imagination.

29

mk 10.17.08 at 10:55 pm

I like the idea of expanding the squiggle’s use very much.
Use it for American Idol performances. Or dancing with the stars, or the inventor show.

Presidential candidates can run endless prep sessions with their own focus groups, learning how to make the squiggle go up. Call it “surfing the squiggle”.
After a generation, a new crop of leaders will emerge raised on squiggle practice sessions, and preternaturally aware of how minute tone inflections can make the squiggle go up or down.

If nothing else, it’s made it really visually clear to us this election how much the swing voter hates negative attacks. (Well, Michael Drake’s point is a possible counter here).

If you really want to go crazy, throw out audience voting entirely in American Idol and simply take the integral of the audience squiggle across the time of your performance.

Why not mean/variance statistics after each debate showing the bell curve of how much time was spent at each positive/negative squiggle value?

30

Daniel 10.17.08 at 11:06 pm

Those little rolling carts that allow babies to stand upright and push themselves around the room have been shown to retard the growth of motor function.

just as a data point – Seth’s implicit accusation here is correct; I did have one of those walkers while growing up (my parents called it “danny’s Dalek”).

I really like MK’s idea of taking the integral of the crawler instead of having a vote but disagree with his implicit restriction of this idea to American Idol and the like – why not give everyone in America a dial and use the integral every four years for the Presidential election (blah blah primaries, presumably, but really, we can put a man on the moon).

31

John Emerson 10.17.08 at 11:57 pm

I do not think that the squiggle is actually a good thing. But it has the advantage of taking the pundits out of the game. It’s far less bad than the pundits. This may be Dsquared’s opinion too.

There’s a whole industry devoted to telling The American People what The American People think. It would be bad enough if the reports were accurate, but the talking heads were calling Bush a popular president when his approval rating had fallen to the low forties.

A lot of voters are followers (whim voters, low-information voters), and they’re quite capable of thinking “Oh! I thought I liked Kerry’s speach, but after reading David Brooks now I know that I don’t”.

Just one small step.

32

dsquared 10.18.08 at 12:21 am

It’s far less bad than the pundits

yes, that’s basically the intuition

33

Cruel Jest 10.18.08 at 1:24 am

It’s difficult to describe the level of enthusiasm I have for this idea. We should implement this immediately. Fox News, in particular, would be fascinating.

34

Nabakov 10.18.08 at 7:50 am

The worm’s been used in Australian election debates for quite a few years now and I seem to recall one poll after a debate where a significant number of respondents nominated it as their preferred PM.

Also second the recommendation about ‘Interface’ which is both a very funny satire of politics and marketing (the demographic breakdown of voters – “Depression-haunted can stacker”, “Activist tube feeder”, “Pent-up corporate lickspittle”, “Post-Confederate gravy eater”, “Mall-hopping corporate concubine”, “Manic Third World entrepreneur”, “Sunbelt condo commando” and “High fibre duck squeezer”, etc, etc is worth the price of purchase alone) and a bloody good thriller as well.

35

Alex 10.18.08 at 9:48 am

Stephen Bury (aka Neal Stephenson and his uncle, Frederick George) wrote a novel called Interface where the president’s brain was wired into realtime issue polls and approval ratings. Great premise, so so novel, scary concept.

Stafford Beer tried to implement it in real life in Chile in 1971, as an input to the policy-making side of his real-time planned economy.

When interpersonal communication is based entirely on telling people what they want to hear, then it’s no longer communication at all but a feedback loop.

Good. That’s a considerable advance on the current situation, where the political class tells the people what its courtier commentators tell it is the conventionally accepted thing for them to want to hear, and then does whatever it wanted to a priori. I’m totally on board with Dsquared’s ambition to turn economics (and why not political science) into a branch of control systems engineering.

36

seth edenbaum 10.18.08 at 11:30 pm

So I guess Chris Bertram is policing the whole site now and my last comment’s been removed. I figured if I were banned entirely He’d simply block my IP. I told him I wouldn’t try to bypass it if he did. But I guess it’s the honor system, so this is goodbye, and this will vanish too, though my earlier comment is still up for some reason. The one that was removed I’ve posted elsewhere.

As with Hitchens, even when DD is wrong or worse[!] he’s still honest. Being contradictory or just god damn bloody-minded is not the same as being hypocritical.
And on that note I’m out.

37

Jeff Rubard 10.19.08 at 6:17 pm

The squiggle worth watching (the aggregated polls on RealClearPolitics) along with the tenor of media coverage concerning their “Americathon” suggest that reports of the McCain campaign’s death are somewhat exaggerated. Were that it were not thus, because the important thing to realize is that McCain/Palin is not about “winning ugly”, it’s about winning stupid. Having someone closely affiliated with a secessionist/”autonomy” party is corrosive of the best traditions of American statecraft, including the realization that even if the South shoulda won they sure didn’t. Immediate repudiation of the AIP by the “No. 2 Dude” is in order.

To continue: I know that a big part of life in these United States is about giving the benefit of the doubt to people who have had too much from the system already, wouldn’t do the same for you, and are better set-up provided they get dummy retarded about our country. However, the Republican presidential ticket and campaign (Keating the Fifth and Western Family as “anti-corruption”) is an insult to the voting populace and should be treated as such. Really, this is actually quite serious and getting distracted by Palin’s frameless glasses could be hazardous to your mental health.

38

Ginger Yellow 10.20.08 at 1:07 pm

“I do not think that the squiggle is actually a good thing. But it has the advantage of taking the pundits out of the game. It’s far less bad than the pundits.”

Absolutely. And, of course, it’s utterly gripping for politics junkies. I watched the first debate on holiday in the States and was simultaneously enthralled and appalled by CNN’s squiggle. The thing is, it serves the same function as the pundits – ie to tell you how the average American would react to the debate – but does it better than the pundits, who are notoriously bad at judging the average American’s views. Clearly this is a good thing, ceteris paribus. But it reinforces the paradigm that what matters about the debate is what the average American thinks, rather than what was actually said and whether it was true, which is very much a bad thing. And worse than that, it does so in real time, so you don’t even have time to form your own opinion, only to have it contradicted by the pundits telling you what you’re thinking. Instead, you’re constantly flicking your attention between the candidates and the lines, wondering how a given zinger will play with Dems vs Independents and so on. It basically turns you into a Villager, which is horrifically soul destroying. The only consolation is that it makes it much harder for pundits to rewrite history for those who don’t watch or listen to the debate live. It doesn’t seem to have stopped them from trying, though.

39

christine 10.20.08 at 4:33 pm

The Worm is fabulous. I think it tells you as much about yourself as anything – thus, for instance, if you are screaming “Down, dammit, go down” at the television as someone tells another porkie, you are probably getting a little too involved and should turn the TV off, have a nice glass of warm milk, and go to sleep (not that you do that, oh no, you silly silly person, and then you’re just annoyed for the next couple of days, and you aren’t even a US citizen, so what’s the point?).

In terms of disabling or disciplining the pundits, though, not so sure. At least they were able to figure out from The Worm that Joe the Plumber was not a winning talking point, but they still nattered on about him for days (and probably weeks). You’d have thought they’d drop it themselves, having seen the reactions. But no.

Also, to add to the geek factor on this comments thread (which is already very very high – integrals of Worms? Fabulous stuff): CNN needs to work on the format of their Worm. The black background is poor, the colours used look too much alike, and for me at least the scale and long lag prior to the moving off the left of the screen aren’t particularly helpful. Maybe someone should consult Andrew Gelman?

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