10 Questions with Michael Broukhim

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I’ve been having a great time on a new(ish) site, Why08.org where you can identify yourself with a candidate and engage in some rousing political discussion surrounding that choice. The site is fun, and designed very smart.

Before the holiday break, I exchanged emails with site creator Michael Boukhim and, of course, had to hit him up for the Community Guy 10 Questions parade!


1. What is Why08?
Why08 is a conversation community about politics. We’ve started out by giving users a venue for expressing which candidates they support and oppose in the 2008 presidential election, but we’ll soon be venturing beyond that into discussions about issues, media figures, and more.

We’ve used the phrase “conversation community” to discuss what we’re doing because we’re clearly something different than your traditional message board, but “social network” isn’t quite an apt description either. We like to see ourselves as part of a growing trend of “social publishing” sites — like Tumblr or Twitter — which are primarily mediums for expression, but also have strong built in community functionality.

2. You mention on the site that you wanted a better way to talk about politics. Has the site delivered on that desire?
I think so. There are tons of sites out there where you can talk about politics, but most of them have an ideological slant or they draw on a relatively narrow constituency. We wanted Why08 to be a non-partisan site designed for partisans of all sorts to hash out their differences. When people disagree you get a much more interesting and lively discussion, than when they don’t.

We’ve seen quite a bit of engagement between supporters of different candidates, especially among the big pools of Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul supporters. We think that’s a good thing, and it’s something we’re looking to build on.

3. From the various color schemes to the bobble head candidate images, design seems to play a big role in the tone of the site. Can you tell us the greater hidden meaning of the bobble?obama.png

It’s a secret.

Well…if you insist…When we mocked out the site in a few different ways, we found that users were drawn to the images of the candidates. Something about big heads ignites opinions; so we went with them.

4. I’m struck by the tone of your site – despite having a somewhat sarcastic feel & tone, it seems to be some of the best political banter around. How do you think the sarcastic bent affects the (mostly) positive nature of the discussions? How does the specific focus of support or not support affect this?
Thanks for the compliment. In dreaming up the site, we knew it had to have a “fun” bent to it in order to succeed. At every opportunity we have to articulate a vision for the site — whether in “about” pages, emails, or interviews like these — we’ve tried to stress that we want Why08 to be a place for political discourse in all its variety, from the inane to the insightful.

Some of the best political commentary out there is made through humor. Whether it’s a sketch on Saturday Night Live or an interview on the Colbert Report, satire can be poignant. We wanted Why08 to be welcoming to the lighter side of politics as well as serious policy debate, and so far, we’re happy with the mix we’ve seen.

With respect to the focus on getting users to take positions (every post has to be associated with a “stand” – support/oppose/neutral – on a candidate), we wanted to create an organizing principle that made sense for politics. In traditional message boards, there are ‘”threads” that start up one day and die the next; we think real conversations are more fluid than that, so we use candidates and positions to structure our conversations.

5. What else do you do in order to maintain order ( i.e. moderation? User banning? Content removal?)
Yup, a little of all of that. We try to stay lite in our oversight, both because it frees our capacity to focus on improving the product and because we believe there needs to be a certain degree of latitude given in political discussions. That said, we have little tolerance for spamming and for bad language, and address those issues through filters and on a case-by-case basis.

6. I’m fascinated by the “Permanent Record” concept. Can you share what it is and how you stumbled upon the idea?
As on all sites with a great deal of user-generated content, there has to be solid mechanisms and incentives in place for bringing the best content to the forefront. It’s an area we think we can improve on a lot. Creating a “Permanent Record” for the posts that receive the most “agrees” in their category is one way we’ve found to give users quick access to a sort of “hall of fame” of Why08 posts.

Down the road, we’re going to be increasingly focused on broadening the community and making it easier for people to engage with Why08 content. As we get out there in more places and make it easier to interact with our content (through widgets, social networking apps, etc.) we hope the “Permanent Record” will be a resource for gaining a pulse of the broader internet community’s opinion on a given candidate or issue.

7. Do you think there are other political discussion sites/outlets that are doing a decent job, or are they all falling into the black hole of internet foolishness?

Sure, there are a lot of great sites out there. To take a page from Robert Putnam, we just thought there was a lot more “bonding” than “bridging” going on, and we wanted to create a community that evened out the scales a little, bringing people together — even in vehement disagreement — rather than pushing them further into their own corners. It’s just more fun that way.

8. The site is branded to last, basically, until November 2008. What happens after that point?
Alas, the brand, Why08, will have to be laid to rest by then, but the site will definitely live on. We think we have a great structure for political conversation, so we’re going to keep expanding on range of topics to talk about.

9. What do you not see Why08 users doing much that you’d love them to use more often? What feature(s) would you just love to implement, if not for those pesky technology limits?
We have to make inviting existing friends (and tracking the evolution of their political views) to the site a simpler, more appealing option. We’ve mentioned before, and we really believe that Why08 will only be as strong as its community, and in many ways it’s a “personalized community”…we want all our users to have that sense of a personalized Why08 community awaiting them. We’re growing at a tremendously fast pace, but making easier to bring others on board is a definite priority.

As for developing new features, we see Why08 as giving structure to political debate on the internet; we’d like that to be true regardless of where the user is or where the debate is taking place.

Despite ultimately being unsuccessful, we thought there was something to Edgeio’s model of bringing listings on the “edge of the net” to a central hub. The problem there seemed to be that people didn’t use their blogs for making classified listings. They do use their blogs for political (and other) opinions; we’re aiming to tap into that.

10. Any parting words, or new upcoming features you’d like to share?
By the time the New Hampshire primary rolls around, there will be a slew of new stuff to play with!