% fortune -ae paul murphy

Internet personalities: looking at three political sites

There are things I know I'm not supposed to do, but do anyway. You should never, for example, rely on your first impressions of a person, but I'm guilty of this all the time. Although my wife denies it, I do change my mind if the facts warrant and, in fact, always go through two separate steps in the first second or so: changing from a negative bias to near neutral if meeting men, and tempering a positive bias on meeting women. The worst thing, however, is I'm not unhappy about the results: the impressions I form within a minute or so of first meeting someone have generally turned out to seem reasonable on longer acquaintance.

There is, obviously, a big element of the self-fulfilling prophecy in that, but the point is that knowing about the risk associated with first impressions is at least a step toward controlling their effects - and that has the interesting corollary that controlling other people's first impressions can provide a significant competitive advantage in situations where your job is to persuade the other guy of something.

The cleanest examples I know of where you can see this logic at work is on political websites: their agendas are clear, the motivation sufficiently serious that some real work should go into making that first impression count, and there's lots of research showing that people who get turned off by a web page will do so in the first second or two.

With that in mind I looked at the websites for the major candidates in the current American presidential campaign.

The most interesting of these, at least from my perspective, belongs to a guy who's out of the running right now: Mitt Romney. His website reflects our kind of thinking: it's a functional but cheaply built site that's been on Linux since 2002 - and it's friendly, geeky, and stuffed with actual content.

Among the remaining contenders the most sophisticated site is run by someone working on the Obama campaign. It's very slick, very professional, presumably very expensive, focused on viewer recruitment, and very much on message with respect to "hope" and "change", but almost completely fact free.

The most interesting thing about it is that the front page is a recruitment screen inviting web visitors to commit themselves to the candidate and the campaign before any information about the candidate or the campaign is made available - making it, I think, a near perfect representation of this candidate's entire campaign.

Both Hillary Clinton's site and John McCain's rely on Windows servers and software - and until Mar 9th (when the Clinton site added a signup screen similar to Obama's) the two sites had roughly similar frontpage layouts too.

Beyond that the differences are enormous. The Clinton main page carries two prominent appeals for cash as well as a link to a store selling Hillary campaign gear. The rest of it reflects a negative legalistic focus exemplified by a prominent link to "our voter protection team" and a matching appeal to an "us vs them" world shown by a headline article in praise of "Women's history month."

McCain's site does none of those things and, instead, puts most of the focus on campaign news, his record, his supporters, and his policy ideas - but is most distinguished from the other two by being the only one to in any way acknowledge that all three candidates have significant, current, responsibilities in the United States Senate.

As I said above, first impressions, for me, normally come in two stages: I have different gut reactions to men than women, and it's only after I get over those that the more lasting "first" impression can form. The McCain and Clinton websites have something of the same effect: the similar news smorg appearances hide the things that form the more lasting "first" impressions - but the Obama site's lack of content means that I never get past that slickly exploitive, and to me highly off-putting, first glance reaction.

The other two sites are more substantive with the lasting "first" impression differences between them in how the candidates are presented and what the website's expectations are about viewers.

Thus Clinton's site tries to show that she's not a loser by providing, for example, front page video of her waving at adoring crowds; but overall treats the web viewer as someone to be categorized and used as a passive source of money and approval. McCain's site, in contrast, treats the web viewer as someone involved in the democratic process and therefore both acknowledges his senate role and focuses on what other people are doing and saying.

So, bottom line: my first impression from the websites is that we should all have been working on Romney's campaign; that both Clinton and Obama see the web as merely a source of money and groupies; and, that among the survivors, only McCain is using his website to communicate with his market.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.