In this contentious election year, the news is full of hateful rhetoric that has bogged down social media with polemic hashtags like #BernieorBust, #shillary, and #neverTrump. With all this noise, it can be difficult to parse out what you really believe when it comes to the key issues and with whom you actually agree. For this reason, I was drawn to Isidewith.com when one of my colleagues posted about it on Cooper’s Slack platform. Isidewith follows in the trend of political quiz sites that help people understand how aligned they are with certain politicians based on core “issues” and “beliefs.” It asks you to fill out a survey about things like social, economic, and foreign policy issues and tells you how closely your answers correlate with how politicians describe themselves. It then provides you with a number representing the percentage you align with each candidate.
The promised clarity and simplicity of a single number to express affinity among many hugely complex issues finally compelled me to visit Isidewith.com. After spending a great deal of time with Isidewith--and getting a better idea about who I side with--I spent some time thinking about what function this tool fulfills, why it’s beneficial, and the ways in which future tools could build off and improve it. I asked myself if it really helped me better understand the issues and, if not, how it might have better fulfilled this function. This article, then, spends some time reflecting on the virtues of sites like this, and then outlines other ways that similar tools might help citizens confront issues in a more nuanced way.
How Isidewith works
First, let me discuss how Isidewith works. Isidewith starts with a simple, multiple choice quiz that takes you through sets of questions. Most interesting in their design is the ability to get more information in a number of directions at any time. How and where this information is presented is critical.
Here’s a basic category of questions:
You can get more information about the question, assign a value of significance for this particular topic, and see more nuanced answers, in case “YES / NO / OTHER STANCES” aren’t adequate responses to every major social and political issue. Oftentimes, I find myself popping out the “more nuanced” answers to give myself more options, only to realize I don’t understand some of them. I expand the question to get more context, and that doesn’t help! I CTRL-T new tab and search for the issue and stance until I actually found out what the deal is.
You move through each section and, at the end, get a delightful graphic indicating your alignment with different political candidates. (Note: for illustrative purposes, I filled out the questions at random).
From here, you can see what, say, Hillary Clinton would have answered on the quiz, or, more specifically, you can compare your answers with her stance on the issues. This section is nicely guarded from the rest of the quiz, so you cannot easily get to this part of the site until you completely filled out your own quiz. It plays to the strength of Isidewith, giving you a fenced off space to think about issues without the weight of knowing what a bunch of other people think about the same issue.
Now, let us consider what Isidewith does and does not do well.
Isidewith does not tout itself as a tool for learning about political issues. Learning feels more like a side effect. That said, the actual process of learning through the site is actually quite good. This is largely because Isidewith tiers information instead of loading you down. Even with options to dig deeper, it suggests breadth and speed over depth. It presents you with the fastest, least nuanced perspectives first, and gives you more nuance only if you ask.
Isidewith presents political perspectives as different “answers” to a quiz question, any one of which is as valid as the rest. In this way, it keeps political camps and context at bay while you’re thinking through issues. It’s like putting ideas on a whiteboard, to talk about them in a neutral space. Isidewith only puts that information back into context with politicians at the end of the quiz to show alignment.
If Isidewith were designed more explicitly as a tool for learning it could be more impactful. Even though the site gives you a statistic about how your stances align with the candidates’, there remains too much distance to meaningfully reinsert issues back into our political reality. That is, it leaves it us to answer how these issues and beliefs fit with the picture we already have of the candidate, their character and history. It can make us feel that we’ve gotten some novel information, but what does it really mean? This is a tricky one, because abstracting the issues is something that Isidewith does really well, but it still needs to be able to connect again with politicians as real people.
I’ve seen a number of people who have taken the Isidewith quiz surprised that they align with a certain candidate. They say they wouldn’t actually vote for that person, however, because of the candidate’s character. This is why keeping the issues abstract is a double-edged sword. On one hand this is its great strength; it’s unlike other tools precisely because it can put the issues in a no-man’s land. On the other hand, the issues don’t always connect back to the candidates.
Exploration beyond Isidewith
Let us now turn to three tools that have the potential to move beyond Isidewith’s offerings. These tools--which I explore through sketches--demonstrate how one might move back and forth between the abstract and the concrete in order to think about political issues in more complex ways. Like Isidewith, these tools pull issues out of context so that one can think about them differently. The tools also then put the issues back in conversation with the world so that one can usefully see them in a wider context. While slightly different in their approach, the three ideas unite around a common thesis that we can use futures to talk about ideas in the world. In doing so, each idea engages with a world that is still abstract: it’s a possible world which has more context than a simple quiz but does but does not necessarily have all of the messiness of our actual world.
- Issue Prism
Here’s a model for a tool that tries to reinsert context in a meaningful way to learn about a political issue. Think of this as the next level of zoom in the tiered data structure. This tool suggests a format for exploring issues beyond blind Googling: you can track issues backward and, more dubiously, forward in time. You may notice I based the “future” bit on Stuart Candy's cone of possible futures, which I first saw referenced in Anthony Dunne and Fionna Raby's Speculative Everything (2013).
It takes as its focus one political issue at a time. Looking backward, we should be able to see issues that have shaped the current discourse on an issue. Looking forward, we should be able to see the possible futures we have at this juncture. Each cylindric shape in the cone represents a possible future that could be suggested by decisions we make on the issue now that would allow you to see what the larger implications are for supporting one perspective on an issue over another. Each cone begins narrow and gets wider as we get further into the future and our predictions become less precise.
Clicking into any point in the past reveals multiple interpretations: who thinks this event was positive? Negative? Why?
Clicking into any ring of the future shows you how different perspectives would like to shape our future with respect to that issue, and how that political philosophy will play out over time. It would be a story or images from that future to illustrate how the world has changed.
- Issues via culture
This idea goes in a completely different direction. It suggests that we use popular culture artifacts like movies and television shows to explore possible futures and then back-cast issues and policy from there. We expect science fiction to suggest an intriguing future, but many films and shows suggest possible worlds even if they take place in the present. We could use those suggestions as a starting point to discuss futures we would like.
Based on your analysis of a number of possible films or shows, it suggests an ideal future for you. Then, it lets you think about current issues in the context of that future. It can even suggest what legislation and politicians support various aspects of your ideal future state.
- Your political timeline
This idea starts with a quiz, like Isidewith, where you register your current beliefs. From this, it creates a political profile for you. Each time there’s a major event in the world, it asks you to reflect on it, answer a couple of questions, and then updates your profile. Anytime there’s a new election, the tool can help you reflect back on your political history and offer insight about candidates and issues in the current election.
There is a clearly cynical direction where this can go, if you introduce a little more automation. The pessimistic direction says that people don’t really want to spend the time to learn about these issues, and if we give them the right assistive tools, they’ll have even less motivation to do so.
In this version, once you enter your political beliefs, it can post to your social media automatically, reacting to current events on your behalf. Come November, it can skip the step of recommending how you should vote and just do the voting for you. Ta-da!
The more positive direction treats the tool as more of an assistant, whereas the more negative direction uses automation to replace the human thought process. It encourages you to reflect on current events, and uses that information to update your belief structure. It can encourage you to evolve and add nuance to your own political perspective.
Futures give us a way to think about issues in context, a way that is different than thinking about issues in the present and different than thinking about issues through politicians. Futures are not real but they’re stories about issues that let us test them out in different contexts. They’re thought experiments that let us move between context and issue, whether that means taking context away from fictional texts or moving issues into fictional futures. I believe that the context provided by futures offers the best of both worlds: issues abstracted away from the rhetoric of current politics, but still placed in a context that lets us explore them in novel ways.