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Analysis: Are instant Internet polls worthwhile?

Federal Computer Week

(IDG) -- Thanks to the Internet, it is now possible to gauge public reaction to political speeches even as the speeches are being made. But such instant Internet polls provide a lot more entertainment value than worthwhile analysis, traditional pollsters contend.

SpeakOut.com, a 7-month-old Internet company, plans to track public reaction to key speeches at the Democratic National Convention this week by letting convention viewers respond online "on an issue-by-issue, moment-by-moment basis." It provided similar opportunities for instant response during the Republican convention earlier this month.

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The company will let hundreds of people log into an "Instant Response Room" at its Web site and react to speeches by moving an on-screen "slider" to the right when they agree with what is being said and to the left when they disagree.

SpeakOut says it can "aggregate user responses in real time, second-by-second and provide instant analysis." During the Republican fete, 1,200 viewers logged in on average and 400 stayed for the whole speech, company officials say.

Thus, SpeakOut.com was able to provide "cross-tabulated data of viewer response to George W. Bush's speech, even before the Texas governor left the stage," company officials said.

But the National Council on Public Polls, an association of polling organizations, dismisses the worth of the instant Internet polls. "They are more akin to a parlor game than to a public opinion poll," the council said at the close of the Republican Convention Aug. 4. "It's fun, but it's nothing more," said Harry O'Neill, of Roper Starch Worldwide, a traditional polling organization.

The main problem is that the reactions gathered online come from a group limited to "those who have heard about it, have access to the Internet and take the time to log on and participate," O'Neill said. They do not reflect the reactions of a cross-section of voters, he said.

"It's basically more about entertainment than about serious research," agreed Humphrey Taylor of the polling company Harris Interactive. Still, the results are "not completely worthless," he said. "They provide some color and some insights.

"If I was running a campaign, I would be interested in the results, but I would be very cautious about how to interpret them," Taylor said.

SpeakOut.com officials concede that theirs "is not a scientific poll." Instead, "it's a fun way to open up the convention," and to demonstrate technology that could be used for scientific polling under more controlled conditions.




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