As American Idol's success has shown, people love to vote -- and to see how others have voted.
American Idol's gorgeous trio who revealed our love of voting on the frivolous.
But why limit electronic polling to TV land? Why can't any audience anywhere be polled, whenever, with the results projected for all to see?
Now, a service called Poll Everywhere makes it pretty simple to offer this -- at least in cases where the audience has cell phones and can send text messages.
These days, that isn't an unreasonable assumption.
Offered since August by a U.S. start-up called Condense, the service has ended up in places its creators never expected. Church, for instance.
Dozens of churches around the U.S. now use it to ask attendees questions, such as, "How often do you share your faith?"
If 40 percent of a congregation indicates that they don't like to evangelize at all, the pastor might choose to address that issue.
Answers given via Poll Everywhere are anonymous, unless names have been asked for (and texted over) in advance. This anonymous aspect makes it easier for participants to volunteer information discreetly.
In a university auditorium with 200 students, for instance, a sociology professor might do a yes-or-no poll on whether respondents have ever had a sexually transmitted disease -- information few would volunteer by raising their hands.
Polls can also be set up to receive free-form text.
The Gateway Church in Texas uses Poll Everywhere to let people anonymously text questions to the pastor while he's speaking.
"He can look down at a laptop on the stage and respond to you," explains Matt Patterson, the church's creative director. "It just helps to make church about the people."
At a recent charity event in New York by the Robin Hood Foundation, the system allowed well-heeled attendees to discreetly text in donation pledges.
The presenters could then call out the amounts promised, without revealing identities.
"If you wanted to donate in a more anonymous way but partake in the excitement of the escalation, this was a way to do it," says Brad Gessler, a cofounder of Condense.
Small polls are free to set up, with the price going up depending on how many respondents are allowed for.
A poll can be left open as long as the creator wishes. Audience members send their vote to a short-code phone number, like 41411, that works anywhere within the U.S. A code they enter links their response to a particular choice within a particular poll.
Once votes are received, the poll's bar graph is instantly, visibly updated on a web site. (See a video of it in action at a recent conference here.)
If attendees vote by SMS, they're charged the usual small fee for a text message by their carrier. If they happen to be online, they can vote for free by going to the poll directly, as with other online polls.
Vote now to know what the audience thinks
The service potentially threatens an industry that its creators didn't even know about at first: audience response systems.
With these systems, sold primarily to schools, wireless clickers are distributed to students so they can respond to multiple-choice questions posed by the instructor. (Some allow for free-from text answers, too.) The instructor can project the answers for all to see, or keep them private.
The ARS industry is enjoying brisk growth, according to UK research firm Futuresource Consulting (formerly DTC).
But Poll Everywhere relies on cell phones that the audience already has, instead of clickers that need to be bought or rented, making it much less costly.
"If the parents are already paying for their students to have cell phones, why not take advantage of it?" asks Steve Dembo, an online community manager for the Discovery Educator Network.
He uses Poll Everywhere to show teachers that cell phones can be a learning tool, not just a distraction.
The challenge is that not every 9-year-old has a cell phone. The startup is contemplating ways to address this, such as converting old TV remotes or cell phones that have been donated, perhaps.
For now, Futuresource analyst Colin Messenger doesn't foresee Poll Everywhere making a big impact in schools.
Instead, he says, "I think it could have real value in the events sector, and possibly it may also have an impact in the university sector."
Professors at Virginia Tech, MIT, and the University of Florida are using Poll Everywhere to assess the knowledge of their students.
Condense views university classes with 100-plus students as its sweet spot.
At corporate events, companies like Oracle and Microsoft are using Poll Everywhere to gauge customer sentiment during presentations, in some cases changing course in response.
Live commentary or feedback during presentations is becoming commonplace at tech conferences. Twitter, a social networking and micro-blogging site, is often used by tech-savvy crowds to praise or mock a presentation as it happens.
But not all audiences care about technology enough to bother with something like Twitter. Text messaging, on other hand, is increasingly mainstream, and easy to figure out on most phones, so Poll Everywhere can make sense as an official live feedback channel.
So far, the SMS voting feature works only in the U.S., but the company plans to expand it to other countries by the end of the summer.
Meanwhile an Irish startup called PollDaddy, which helps people create online polls, says it hopes to offer worldwide SMS voting by year's end.
There is still one unknown at this point: How repressive governments -- wary of voting in general, however light-hearted -- will respond to such systems.
What's beyond question is the natural popularity of polls. PollDaddy recently created a site where visitors can "spy" on the hundreds of thousands of polls created with its service. Go there if you have any doubts.