Whistlestop Helps Politicians Ride the Social Media Train

The “whistle-stop” tour has been a tradition in American politics since the mid-1800s. Politicians travelled the nation by train, stopping to speak to citizens from a platform at the back of their train car. On these tours, candidates spoke to people across the country.

Truman on a 30,000-mile whistle-stop tour during his 1948 re-election campaign

The “whistle-stop” has such appeal that campaign managers decided to expand its meaning. Today, the term refers to just about any type of political event while on tour—even closed-door fundraising meetings and speeches in private jet hangars.

On February 29, a new social media website called Whistlestop went live. Unlike the other recent uses of the term, Whistlestop stays true to the ideals of the original whistle-stop. But the site has the potential to reach more Americans than any train car ever could.

Alex Benard, President and founder of Whistlestop, explained to me in an email that Whistlestop will increase transparency in politics. Benard says the new site will allow citizens to “hold candidates accountable, communicate with them directly, and decide which candidates deserve support.”

Whistlestop conveniently aggregates candidates’ messages from YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms and combines them in a sleek central news feed.

Whistlestop tracks politicians’ Whistlestop followers, Twitter followers and re-tweets, Facebook likes, and other forms of social media engagement. Each candidate receives a Whistlestop Score that indicates their digital clout.

The new site could help predict election outcomes. Benard explains, “In a lot of these races there isn’t even polling data available yet, so for now the Whistlestop Score provided  a trackable metric for how candidates in these races are performing.” While not everyone believes that social media sites will be able to accurately predict election results, most agree digital clout can help gauge candidates’ ability to fundraise and to mobilize supporters.

The Whistlestop Score serves as a political scoreboard. Benard believes that introducing “game-dynamics”—features that make the site seem like a game—will attract users who would not otherwise follow politics. He explained, “Americans—even those that are not hyper-involved, politically—love to follow the horse race over the course of the campaign…We are bringing the horse race into the digital space.”

Whistlestop also keeps your score. It allows users to post status updates, add friends, view other users’ profiles, sign in using Facebook, and invite friends to follow politicians. It assigns users a score based on their site activity. I have already earned 45 points for following Obama and Romney, and these points are displayed prominently next to my name.

Service-based websites and apps often “gamify” their platforms to increase their popularity. Linkedin employs subtle game-dynamics by prominently displaying users’ connections, while Foursquare features overt game-dynamics by giving users badges for checking in to new locations. Whistlestop keeps public score—of you, your friends, and the politicians. It also includes other game features, such as rewarding active users with custom badges.

Assigning online activism a quantifiable social currency carries risks. Gamification can change the incentives people have to become involved in politics, perhaps increasing the likelihood people will support politicians and movements without thinking critically about the issues. Users could forget that this site is a whistle-stop, not a substitute for gathering political information elsewhere.

On the other hand, though, these game-dynamics could draw a broad user base. By introducing a fun, interactive platform that allows users to keep track of elections and foster political dialogue with their friends, the site may attract those who would not otherwise follow politics closely. The game-layout also encourages users to follow the entire race, increasing the chances people will follow politicians with different political affiliations.

Whistlestop strikes the right balance. The site capitalizes on people’s love for competition and social interactions, but its central function remains compiling and relaying information for users. The site layout also makes it difficult to win points and earn badges without following politicians closely.

With the right marketing strategy, Whistlestop’s sleek layout and game features could draw a large user base, especially during a presidential election year. Adding game-dynamics to political social media sites could be a win, both for site developers and for democracy, as long as companies and users remain cautious about the rules.

During election season, the sound of a train whistle once signaled that a political candidate had arrived at a nearby train station. Today, the whistle is always blowing, and the station is just a mouse click away. You even earn points for showing up.

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3 Responses to Whistlestop Helps Politicians Ride the Social Media Train

  1. Sybil E. Sam says:

    Anna, this is great. Like Dilan, I also greatly appreciate (and I am impressed ) by the fact that you interviewed the president and founder of Whistlestop to provide better context for your piece! I think you make an important point when you say that the gamification of sites like this will draw in a larger user-base, encouraging people – who wouldn’t have done so otherwise – to become involved in some sort of online political activity.
    My presentation this week will be on how Ghanaians are using new media ( particularly social media) to participate in the run-up to the presidential election later this year. Without giving too much away, I will say that Ghanaians’ political participation on sites like Facebook is not nearly what it is here in America and even in some other African countries. In that vein, I would be curious to see what a site like Whistlestop would do for voters or civic engagement in Ghana. I do however acknowledge that, for people living in a third world country like Ghana, the incentives to engage in online political activity need to be rather different from winning points and earning badges.

  2. Amanda says:

    The site sounds very interesting, and it seems like a beneficial tool for both politicians and regular users during an election cycle. If I understand correctly, the site makes it possible to follow a candidate’s social media activity solely on Whistlestop, without having to follow that candidate on your personal social media account as well. I see this as a potential positive because it may lead users to follow politicians that they normally would not feel comfortable publically following on their personal Twitter or Facebook accounts. Of course, this also has the potential to create the echo chamber effect described by Anna and Dilan. Lastly, what becomes of Whistlestop after Election Day (and for the 2.5 or so years before campaigning picks up again)? Some dedicated users may login during midterm elections, but I envision the site going cold promptly after the true whistle-stopping ends. Is there a way to keep the site relevant during non-election years? Perhaps that is what the gamification aspect is for?

  3. Dilan says:

    Anna, this is a great piece and really cool find. I also really like the fact that you also interviewed Alex Benard to get even more insight into the site.

    Although I’m sure Whistlestop would overestimate my political clout considering I blocked myself from a few sites during midterm season, it is very interesting that like klout.com, we are able to assess out own influence during the election season.

    The game aspect of the site is quite cool, but as you mentioned, it really is fairly easy for people to simply follow politicians that represent whatever ideology most closely matches their own. Therefore, they may not use the site to expand their horizons, but instead continue to seek information to support what they already believed in.

    That said, I really like the site because of the way it aggregates information. For people that are looking to get as much information as they can about the different political perspectives this season, Whistlestop seems like a great place to start (and a new game addiction to have).

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