Simple questions can create a great debate

Steve Peterson at The Bivings Report pointed out a post on National Public Radio’s The Bryant Park Project that posed a simple question: Who Are Ron Paul’s Supporters?

For those of you who don’t know, Ron Paul is a Representative from Texas running for president as a Republican, although he ran as a Libertarian in 1988. The political outsider broke a one-day fund-raising effort, pulling in US$6m on 16 December. The Republican establishment and the mainstream media are a bit baffled by his candidacy. However, listening to some of his political statements, he reminds me sometimes of Warren Beatty’s character Bulworth, a suicidally disillusioned liberal politician who becomes bluntly honest. (UPDATE: Just to clarify. Warren Beatty’s character was liberal. I didn’t mean to say that Ron Paul was liberal. Personally, I think his politics doesn’t fit tidily into the liberal-conservative spectrum.)

The response to the question was overwhelming, so much so that they had to shut off comments after 4,000 flooded in. The show’s producers called it Ron Paul-valanche. As I said to Steve via e-mail and he posted the Bivings’ blog:

I have often said to our journalists that only a fraction of our audience will respond to [a] traditional article, and often those responses won’t add much to the story. However, by guiding the discussion with a simple question or some framing of the debate or issue, I think participation not only increases but it’s also broader and more diverse.

Ron Paul’s supporters, well known for being vocal and very active online, swarmed the post, but answered the question in quite some detail, providing a great snap shot of the presidential candidate’s supporters. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Representative Paul’s supporters have a Google alert-driven flashmob system set up that directs them to blog posts, videos and other discussions online to show their support.

But this is still an amazing response, and as I told Steve, they might be able to take this one step further. You could try to extract some of the information in the comments, probably by mining the underlying database that runs the blog. They could extract information such as age and location of the commenters in this thread to do some interesting mash-ups showing supporter distribution by age and state. It would provide some structure to that information and help to show patterns in it.

This idea is so simple. It is a great use of a programme blog. As I say to Guardian journalists, blog posts are great in framing a debate around a piece of traditional journalism or in reflecting a debate online or off-line. A traditional piece of reporting ties together as many threads as possible, but a great blog post teases out threads for a discussion.

This post asked a simple question and got a great response. To me, this post is an act of journalism, but instead of asking a handful of people on the street or over the phone a question, you’ve posed the question publicly and heard from thousands of people.