“Representative Katherine Clark’s office.”
I’m calling Clark’s office for the first time and I’m a bit caught off guard. Do I just start speaking? I go for it and ask the staffer who answered the phone for Clark’s position on the proposed wall on the Mexican border. Then I share mine.
I give him my email address, thank him for his time, and hang up. Returning to my laptop, I click “call now” beneath Senator Elizabeth Warren’s name and phone number. My phone rings. It’s Senator Warren’s office.
I’m using Fifty Nifty to call my representatives. Later, I’ll share a link to the site on Facebook and ask my friends and family to do the same. The idea behind the new site, developed as a research experiment in senior research scientist Andrew Lippman’s viral communications group at the MIT Media Lab, is to make it easy to call your representatives and encourage others to call theirs.
The first part really is easy. When I register my zip code and cell phone number, which the site is only using to connect calls and verify users, Fifty Nifty looks up my representatives and gives me a “call now” button for each. I click a button and Fifty Nifty makes the call, then rings my phone when it connects.
The second part is a bit trickier. I’m supposed to share my unique link on Facebook, Twitter, and by email. Friends are then supposed to click that link, sign up, and make calls, scoring me points and beginning to build a sort of family tree. There are three goals: Climb the high score list, try to be the catalyst for a call from all fifty states, and convince friends to join.
A Fifty Nifty family tree shows how one person’s encouragement can cause others to call their congressional representatives.
Of course, the real goal is civic engagement. In an era awash in email and social media posts, phone calls stand out, said MIT Sloan Professor Simon Johnson, who helped develop Fifty Nifty. The project follows tools like callgov.us and 5 Calls, sites that help make calls to Congress and allows users to submit scripts others can read when making the calls.
To really fill out your Fifty Nifty map, you’ll need to do a bit of work. Johnson’s map, for example, lights up in Utah, where he recruited a friend to sign up and encourage more family and friends to make calls.
One unique element of Fifty Nifty is it can give users in gerrymandered or reliably blue or red districts an opportunity to influence the voting habits of congressional members across the country. Let’s say you are a Democrat in Massachusetts who opposes repealing the Affordable Care Act. Chances are, your representatives — all Democrats — are also against the repeal. But by encouraging your network across the country to make similar calls, you piggyback on calls to Republican representatives, some in contested districts.
Real voices. No bots allowed. Johnson sees Fifty Nifty using technology to fight back against the automation of political opinion. Social media, web publishing, and advances in artificial intelligence have together given rise to a sort of signal jamming that makes it hard to separate real political opinion from online trolls and fake messages. A phone call by a person can cut through the clutter.
“[Amazon AI platform] Alexa cannot call up a member of Congress and convince the staffer that she is a real person,” Johnson said.
Right after finishing my third call, with Senator Edward Markey’s office, I posted my Fifty Nifty link on Facebook, asking people to make calls and spread the word.
Seven likes. Two shares. Zero calls. Johnson wasn’t surprised. Even with an assist, there are barriers preventing people from making calls. The Fifty Nifty group is working on improvements that will make the tool work without requiring users to submit their phone number, something many people are reluctant to do.
Others may be nervous about making the phone call, unsure of what to say or how to say it. The Fifty Nifty group is considering scripts for particular topics, but that risks taking the whole process back toward automation.
“People who are very active in the [political engagement] space say that we should have more detailed scripts for people to use,” Johnson said. “Many people don't know exactly what to say, they think they sound foolish and so on. The problems with scripts is it tends to sound like a scripted campaign.”
The site is getting some traction. Last week Fifty Nifty saw an uptick in activity following some media attention. There are now registered users in 48 states and Washington, D.C. (Delaware and Wyoming are holdouts). As of March 13, users had made 901 calls totaling nearly 23 hours in length.
Another next step might be helping users run campaigns on particular topics. For example, people could compete against each other by recruiting friends and earning points toward a high score on a board about a particular bill. The gamification is in service of the end goal — political engagement with results.
“When something happens, people want to react quickly, and that's the Facebook [post] ‘Oh my God, I can't believe they did this to us.’ And that's fine, but that's not going to get you anything,” Johnson said. “You need to make a phone call.”