Thursday, February 7, 2008

UBC VFM Results

University of British Columbia’s student union (Alma Mater Society) recently completed their second voter-funded media contest. (Their first was a year ago.) Below are my impressions of the results.

Overall, VFM succeeded in making a positive contribution to this democratic community. In spite of the late launch of the election and the VFM contest, the media contestants dove into energetic analysis and discussion of the electoral candidates. This gave voters more intelligent insight to base their choices on than they could have achieved without this media help. Like last year, it also educated candidates about their prospective positions and responsibilities.

Unfortunately, voter turnout was lower than last year, in both the election and VFM voting. This was primarily because of the late launch, short campaign and voting periods, relative lack of advance publicity, and voting on VFM after the election instead of concurrently.

The long-term success of VFM requires a feedback loop from media to voters and back to media. We need voters to reward media that provide public benefit. While voter assessments of media quality will never be perfect, we can see a substantial maturing of those assessments from January 2007 to January 2008.

The prime example is UBC Insiders’ move from 7th place to 2nd place. Their excellent content was not widely appreciated in January 2007 because they were new and VFM itself was new. But their continued blogging throughout 2007 spread their reputation, and a growing number of students participated in their comment discussions. By January 2008, students seeking insight into electoral candidates knew where to look, and were not disappointed.

Voters have also learned to catch on faster to media quality: new-in-2008 contestant The Devil’s Advocate sprinted from nowhere to a 3rd place finish. However, their modest but astute conjecture is that much of the voters’ improved insight came from self-selection: only students who follow the media bothered to return to the polls for VFM voting after the election was over.

It’s hard to tell how changing the VFM voting system may have shaped the award allocations. In 2007 we used approval voting (very simple – like or dislike each contestant) but this year we used “Interpolated Consensus” (more complex – vote each contestant $0 or $500 or $1000 or $1500 or $2000). Besides the apparently more accurate assessments of media quality, this year’s awards show several positive features. The top three places are closely spaced, supporting healthy competition among media groups rather than dominance by one or two. They represent substantially differing political perspectives, showing that a “tyranny of the majority” is not marginalizing all minority views. Nonetheless, not everyone wins a prize. A few entrants that voters deemed not worthwhile did not recover their $150 entry fees. This discipline helps discourage a proliferation of weak entrants from cluttering VFM ballots.

Some contestants won awards without providing much election coverage. I think The 432 and The Underground have been blamed for this. But to me, VFM has never been only about election coverage. For both of the last 2 years at UBC, I wanted to launch VFM in September, to encourage media to cover AMS issues for 4 months (including the election) and then get rewarded for it in a January vote. This incentive can work even before VFM is formally launched. So those media groups that have been connecting with students all year have earned the extra support they get.

The mix of serious and humorous content is of course up to media and voters to choose as they wish.

I’m also glad to see that VFM has induced a healthy debate on the quality of competing media [read comments]. I hope the debate and the incentive to build reputation among voters will encourage a steady improvement in both new and established media.

I hope to offer a year-round monthly VFM contest at UBC soon, like the one we just started at SFU. This could solve several problems, including late start, high entry fee, over-emphasis on elections and slow media-voter feedback learning.

VFM is gaining momentum at other student unions, including BCIT, Langara College and McGill University. I’m giving a public talk at Kwantlen University College (Richmond) on February 20.

Various websites’ discussions of VFM are linked from

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