Is there a God?
What about your eggs – how do you like them?
Poutsch, a Paris-born startup launched in late 2012, wants to know what you think. Or really, your friends, family, colleagues and strangers online want to know, and the opinion-aggregating social network lets users ask and answer questions on any topic. They can be specific (Hummus or guacamole?), broad and philosophical (Are you confident in the future?), political (Is Hugo Chavez a dictator?). Click your answer to see what others think: people you follow, people in your area, people the world over. Fill out your gender and age to see the demographic breakdown.
“It’s a bit of a little online democracy,” says Etienne Adriaenssen, who co-founded Poutsch with two of his friends. During the 2011 Arab Spring, they saw the outcry on Facebook and Twitter, but couldn’t make sense of who was involved, and to what extent they were participating. There weren’t hard numbers.
“There was no real place where we could figure out quantitative and qualitative data on what had happened and how many people were involved in these movements,” Adriaenssen explains.
Various social networking profiles can give away a lot about our beliefs: what pages and statuses we “like,” what we retweet, what we pin to our “Outfits I Love” Pinterest boards. But these actions aren’t reliable as hard data. When a person retweets something, Adriaenssen says, there’s no way to determine their stance: Do they agree with the initial sentiment, are they angry or are they just interested in the topic? And while you can guess at demographics, a person’s Twitter profile doesn’t always give away their age, gender and location – crucial factors in data analysis.
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Poutsch, a play on the German word for coup d’état, aims to bring the world’s opinions into a global conversation.
“To be able to really understand history,” says Adriaenssen, “you also need to be able to understand why, what drives certain people to do things. And opinion is really that.”
At the International Youth Council, Director of External Affairs Jacob Helberg uses Poutsch to pinpoint what young people are concerned about. Once he’s collected a substantial number of responses to a question, he’s able to provide hard numbers when he advocates for change.
“We can act as sort of a speaker phone and go to our partners at the State Department, for example, and say, ‘Look. We have a thousand people that think that youth unemployment is the number one issue,'” Helberg explains. “With Poutsch, we can actually have data that’s detailed…you see the geographic region where the respondents are responding from, and you also see their demographic characteristics — so gender, age.”
But do people want to share what they honestly believe online, unfiltered, for anyone to see? Naturally, people have different personas depending on whom they’re with, says Jamie Beckland, vice president of strategic services and delivery at Janrain, a social media identity company.
“You’re a different person at work than you are with your friends, than you are with your family,” Beckland says. “Social networks make that more obvious. It makes us need to make choices about who we are in what context, and then align the part of our identity with a certain network.” Your professional self goes on LinkedIn, your after-work-drinks self is Nashville-filtered on Instagram.
With Poutsch, your beliefs are on display for anyone to see — you can’t tweak them for a specific context. Unless, of course, you lie.
Maybe all your friends know you’re an atheist, but you don’t want your Greek Orthodox mother to find that out when you answer “no,” you don’t believe there’s a God. How do you bridge the gap and assure that users answer honestly, and that the data gleaned is accurate?
Conveniently, Poutsch offers users the option of answering questions anonymously, but still collects the demographics of respondents for data purposes. But an internet troll could wreak havoc on that carefully collected data, rendering the startup’s mission worthless.
“If there’s too much deception, then the system’s not useful, and people stop using it,” says Jeff Hancock, associate professor of communication and information science at Cornell University.
Despite the “odd troll,” Hancock says social media actually encourages honesty. When your social network comprises people who actually know you and can verify the truth of your statements online, it’s harder to fudge details. People don’t usually lie without a reason, he says, even with anonymous answering.
“You can look at cheating studies, you can look at any number of different types of things,” Hancock says. “How much money people will take when they’re actually able to take a ton, test-taking, looking at taxes, looking at insurance reports. A pretty consistent finding is that most people are honest, but they cheat by a little bit. And I think that’s what you’ll find here.
“If they’re coming to the site, and they’re actually going to answer a question and put effort into it, in general they’re going to be honest.”
Similar sites that rely on user-generated content, like Quora and Wikipedia, have succeeded in providing reliable information. Hancock attributes this to the tight-knit, niche communities those sites foster — communities where users care about what they post. Beckland agrees.
“[It] creates a model where success breeds success, where honesty and transparency and quality are allowed to shine, thereby increasing everyone’s incentive to provide higher quality and more honest and more true to life responses,” Beckland says.
The real danger, he warns, is in the staleness of the data.
“It’s difficult and rare for users to go back and update their answers,” he says. “There’s just no motivation, or no reason, for them to go back and revisit decisions that they made several years ago in the past.”
Even if your attitude and your perspective about a subject has changed, Beckland says, “you run the risk of being weighted down by the person you were.”
But as a data snapshot of a moment in time, Poutsch seems poised for success.
“I hope that when we start building a serious amount of data it’s going to be a resource,” Adriaenssen says. “A resource to understand past behavior, and also current behavior of your friends and colleagues.”