Invasion of the election apps

From polling widgets to iPhone-based countdown clocks, election apps are everywhere. With the election only a few days away, it's not clear what's next for the companies that make them.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

Among the digerati, there's already a clear winner in the presidential election: little Web "widgets" that can be dropped onto sites to carry everything from election results to user-chosen news headlines to slideshows of VP candidate Sarah Palin's fashion choices.

In 2004, the buzz about digital media and the election was all about a nascent form of news publishing--blogs. In 2006 it was online video, particularly YouTube, after the video-sharing site hosted a widely circulated amateur video of George Allen, then a Virginia senator up for re-election, using an obscure racial slur at a campaign rally.

In 2008, it's been all about the widgets. A Silicon Valley fad for two years running, they've officially hit a mainstream fever pitch with the campaign cycle. And if there wasn't enough already about this election to make your head spin, these might put you over the top.

The companies and Web developers who make applications for clients like media companies and political campaigns, from widgets to mobile-device downloads, are currently riding high. So are a ton of Web start-ups that let you vote, mash up, aggregate, or what-have-you with news stories and headlines. Media outlets have been decorating their Web sites with the digital equivalent of Christmas tree ornaments: countdown clocks, video players, tickers with headlines sourced from around the Web, and the trendiest of all, the clickable red-and-blue Electoral College projection map.

It's a far cry from 2004, when we were all marveling over "citizen news" at sites such as RedState and DailyKos, and campaigns' use of Meetup to bring supporters together.

With the electoral cycle drawing to a close, we'll soon see whether the endless parade of "election apps" is a lasting digital trend or whether the hype will fade. Widgets and gadgets and mash-ups are largely reliant on technology created by small Silicon Valley companies that could fall from favor as innovation speeds on, go belly-up in the face of a recession, or see their contracts trimmed from the budgets of cash-strapped media companies that have commissioned them.

Right now, though? They're everywhere. You can see election apps in action on TV, with cable network Current aggregating election-related messages from micro-blogging service Twitter along with headlines from social news site Digg. They're on newspapers' Web sites, like sharing start-up SocialMedian's partnership with outlets like the Washington Post and the U.K.'s The Guardian. They're on the iPhone, with downloads ranging from Electoral College maps to poll results to an official Barack Obama campaign app. And they're on social networks; both Facebook and MySpace have partnered with youth-voting organization Rock the Vote to entice more of their young members to register to vote.

The campaigns are in on it, too. Obama's campaign created an internal social network, an application to run on an Apple iPhone; used a text-messaging campaign to announce his choice of Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden as his running mate; and used the platform of a development company, Clearspring, to make a "Tax Cut Calculator" application. (Clearspring says it's had 1.3 million views in fewer than three weeks, half of which have been on MySpace.) Republican rival John McCain has been less proactive on the social-networking and Web app front, but Clearspring said that a third-party "McCain-Palin '08" application has been embedded across the Web 13,000 times.

For the news-hungry masses, in an era when headlines can emerge anywhere at any hour, widgets and mash-ups and Web apps--often described by their manufacturers with adjectives like "real-time" and "dynamic"--are like 24-hour access to popcorn. "People are gravitating, not just individuals, but actually the campaigns--they're seeing widgets as a way to get their message out and get their campaign message in front of people, particularly in the social-media space," said Bill Rubacky, Clearspring's director of marketing.

"People are gravitating, not just individuals, but actually the campaigns--they're seeing widgets as a way to get their message out and get their campaign message in front of people, particularly in the social-media space."
--Bill Rubacky, director of marketing, Clearspring

2008's election-app craze is as much about managing this frenetic news cycle as it is about galvanizing voters. Just check out MySpace's "Decision '08" page, which features nothing less than an NBC political news feed, a Google Gadget for locating polling stations, an MSNBC video player, a link to an interactive Electoral College map, and a poll from Flektor, a widget-maker that MySpace parent company News Corp. acquired last year--in addition to the usual MySpace networking features.

Some Web users might find it to be an efficient one-stop source for interactive political news. Others might scream "media overload." And if you look at fashion, an era of heavy accessorizing (read: the '80s) is often followed by a reactionary period of austerity. Will digital politics' equivalents of gold bangles and neon leg warmers end similarly? That's dependent on one huge factor: results. Should Obama lose the election on Tuesday, his social-apps-heavy campaign tactics may be seen as less effective than most pundits anticipated.

There's also a question of what happens after Tuesday, when the election hype ends and the reality of a likely recession sets in. One not-so-good sign: Silicon Valley venture capitalists are already expressing concern about the app industry's ability to make money.

"(Political news) is certainly something many people are passionate about, and when the election's over its unclear who they will turn to," said Amanda Michel, head of the "Off the Bus" political coverage hub for the Huffington Post, a political news outlet that has seen its traffic soar with the impending election.

In other words, many of the companies that have been responsible for the share-this, embed-that culture of the 2008 election's digital coverage might not be around to do the same thing for the 2010 midterms or the 2012 general election.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the Internet as a whole took a breather," said Mark Ghuneium, founder and CEO of analytics agency Wiredset. "You know what they say about a rising tide raising all boats? It might be true that (the election) is keeping things sustained."

A correction was made at 1:46 p.m. PT: Clearspring was the platform for the Obama campaign's tax calculator widget, but it was not officially commissioned to make it.