The FiftyNifty challenge

Viral Communications group / MIT Media Lab

Calling your senator or representative is intimidating. With it is as easy as making a dinner reservation. simplifies the process of making your opinion known to your congressperson while encouraging your friends to do the same. It’s like a chain letter: grassroots and network-building. We help you make your call and you pass on an invitation for your friends to do the same. Your invite can stress your opinion on the issue. You get points for your call and additional points for calls made by friends in proportion to how close they are to you in your network. The winners are those who get 50 people in 50 states to make a call to their elected officials. A “grand slam” is the network that reaches all 535 members of Congress.

Don’t know who represents your district, city or state? We’ll figure that out when you register. Just click the “call” button in the app and we’ll connect you. You can watch your network expand showing a map of the states you’ve reached. The leaderboard shows the biggest influencers. Your private information is encrypted and will never be used outside the project.

Our motivation is to understand and overcome people’s resistance to participation in the public process. We cast it as a challenge, a game to build a network based on an issue. Both the game-like approach and the underlying issue are important and we will test which one generates the most activity.

It takes real effort to vote or phone, more than many of us are willing to expend. We call this friction and it can grind participation to a halt. Our test will reveal whether engaging in an open challenge, at the inspiration of your friends, can grease the process. We think it is important that it be grassroots and separate from the normal, organizational requests we all get so often. We are exploring a shift in trust and motivation from institutions to networks that is manifest in examples as diverse as Uber and Bitcoin. That is the larger picture into which this challenge fits.

We all have long-distance friends and relatives, and they have friends and relatives, and so on. In the style of Stanley Milgram’s famous small world experiment in the 1960s that showed how there is an average of only six degrees of separation between any two people (later known as the Kevin Bacon number), we will try to see how far away we are from anyone, in any state. The idea of using a social network to solve a problem premiered in DARPA’s “Red Balloon Challenge” in 2009. The Media Lab’s Human Dynamics group won with a strategy that we draw on here: giving a reward to everyone in the chain of discovery.

We chose phone calls as the test because a live telephone call during working hours to one’s congressional representative’s office is treated more seriously than email, letters, or an after-hours voicemail. In part this is because the recipient has a direct interaction with the caller, which is hard to ignore. It signifies concerted effort by the caller. It also flags the caller as someone more likely to participate in the political process (voting) than someone who takes a more passive role. Pragmatically, live, daytime calls interfere with the normal jobs of the staffers and are therefore more noticed. Given that representatives often have well-maintained active voter records, they may also know the caller and they can verify the authenticity of the call in real time.

This is a contest, but the only prize is recognition on our leaderboard and pride in the contribution your network has made to the democratic process. Likewise, we take no strong position on the particular issue: we seeded this network with the recent Executive Order restricting immigration, but we are adding more issues for you to choose for your network, and you are welcome to seed your network with an issue of your own choosing. Callers are free to comment on any issue important to them, their calls are private. Try it out and join the challenge! Stay tuned to see if we create a new red balloon or a lead balloon.

FiftyNifty was created by the Viral Communications group at the MIT Media Lab. Andrew Lippman, Leopold Mebazaa, Travis Rich, and Jasmin Rubinovitz, with Simon Johnson (MIT Sloan School of Management) and Penny Webb (Tangible Media group).

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