Thursday, October 23, 2008

ACORN and the social media lesson

The ACORN voter registration debacle has been in the news a bit of late, and I've been giving it some thought. Senator McCain, in the last presidential debate got rather vitriolic over ACORN's collecting of registrations from fictional, non-existant, and otherwise bogus registratants. His quote:

We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy...

Of course, as we have since learned there was no voter registration fraud. The law requires ACORN to turn-in the registrations even if they know they are bogus. Someone else makes the determination whether Mickey Mouse might actually be eligible to vote--not ACORN. If there were to be voter fraud it would only happen should some of the ineligible people actually attempt to vote.

That said, ACORN's goals were quite admiral:

Registering to vote is one of the first steps toward becoming a full participant in American democracy and a citizen who can influence change in a community...

For the 2008 election, ACORN intends to help 1.2 million people register to vote in 26 states across the country.

Their strategy, however, was a disaster. They hired people to register voters, and paid them for each registration they collected. That the workers padded their numbers with fake registrations in order to increase their remuneration is supposed to be shocking? Ummm, no, that is exactly the result that you would expect. Paying people to register voters is a very bad idea. Actually, it's such a bad idea that it should be against the law. There are more than enough people who are passionate enough about this cause that it should be an entirely volunteer driven endeavor.

It's the same dynamic with social media in the enterprise. People should be driven to participate in these systems because it's the right thing to do--collaboration, teamwork, transparency, sharing, pride... As soon as you turn these activities into an economic transaction then the motives for participation have forever been borked. ACORN has provided us with a very publicly embarrassing example of this social media antipattern in action. False incentives lead to false participation, and the results are always bad.


Peg said...

Thanks for making the important distinction between registration fraud and voter fraud, Kevin.

I'm not sure the comparison between ACORN's voter-registration strategy and for-pay social-media participation holds up. After all, hiring poor people to perform useful work (temporary job creation) was one goal of ACORN's voter-registration program. A debatable strategy, perhaps, but not really comparable to the widening earning-money doing-social-media universe.

I assume many types of commercial enterprises will continue to use social media in all forms, just as nonmarket enterprises will. Most will fail, but some will succeed. The successes may pave the way for part of that new economic order we're all waiting for.

I have a lot more interest in what happens when institutions, (say,"educational" institutions) whose organizational structure demands expensive filter-then-publish vetting arrangements, and who pay the vetting classes well, attempt to deploy many-to-many, publish-then-filter media designed to invite the vast amateur hordes into the conversation.

Kevin Gamble said...


It's definitely an interesting to think about. Your points are well taken.

When I wrote this I was thinking of this chapter in Yochai Benchler's _Wealth of Networks_ where he talks about a study of the blood supplies in Great Britain where it was a voluntary system as compared to the U.S. system which was largely commercial at the time:

It appears to me that the voter registration pool has been tainted much like the blood supplies of old. You still get blood-- but the quality takes a big hit.

Bud said...

I'm coming to this conversation late, but I want to question the premise. If you pay people to participate in social media, and they participate, they do in fact participate. In the voting registration scheme, voters did not fill out bogus cards, workers did. That's a key difference.

In general, people are paid for the things they do at work. If the task at hand is not something you'll pay them to do or make part of their responsibility, you're devaluing it relative to their other work duties, and you'll suppress participation.