My wife’s in the other room watching American Idol, and while I’m amazed it’s been going so long, you gotta admire its emphasis on quality and professionalism. And no mention of money (isn’t there something vaguely obscene about a program like Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader where avarice and greed are paraded before kids as incentives to learn?)
Anyway, while my wife’s watching idolatry on a production line, I’m trading emails with the guy who wrote my favorite software of the moment, SuperNoteCard and a composer whose music I discovered as pirate tapes on the streets of Bangkok 20 years ago: Tim Story.
His Glass Green was the soundtrack to a dark period of my life and I still can’t listen to those deceptively simple songs without being transported back to the night bus north to Sisatchanalai, pulling out of Morchit in the rain.
Anyway, I once confessed this to him in an email (after I’d tracked down the originals) and he was forgiving and very pleasant, so I’m proud to be one of the first to sign up for his new CD, Inlandish, not needing to listen to know it’s going to be well worth the money. (Yes, it could be on MP3, but who cares?)
The point? I hate it when I can’t even find an address on a website when I’m buying something. But that’s so old wave: The new world is when we can discover and communicate directly with our heroes, whether they write great software that makes us more creative, or music to inspire us. And it feels good to support them.
American Idol fulfills an important role: finding the hidden gems scattered across America. But maybe the Internet does something even better: helps us find artisans who may be less interested in becoming idols to just making enough to be happy, and making others happy in the process.
If you’re wondering why Sanjaya Malakar has done surprisingly well in American Idol, here’s one possible answer: dialers.
Dialers are pieces of software usually stealthily installed on a victim’s computer to automatically dial expensive premium telephone numbers. The victim only finds out when they receive their phone bill. In this case, the dialer, openly available on a reputable download site, is a voluntary install designed to automate the voting process in Idol:
Sanjaya War Dialer uses your computers modem to automatically dial the American Idol voting number over and over and over again until you tell it to stop. Automatically cast hundreds or even thousands of votes for Sanjaya with the click of a button. Make Sanjaya win and help us ruin American Idol.
The Sanjaya War Dialer has its own MySpace page where users report on their votes — 600 a hour, for some. The show’s producers are aware of this, and have been lopping off blocks of votes if they seem to be coming from power dialers, as they call them, for several weeks.
Gaming the system by voting for inferior contestants is not new. Vote for the Worst claims to have been around since 2004. And DialIdol.com offers dialers for other shows, including Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, Canadian Idol and Celebrity Duets. DialIdol isn’t so much about gaming the system as predicting who will be voted off by seeing which hotlines are busiest.
Should we be surprised by this? No. It’s not easy to tell how many people are using these dialers, and it would need to be a lot to make it work. But we shouldn’t underestimate the number of people willing to do this, either for fun or because they have money riding on it. And of course they may not need to vote – they only need to stop other people from voting for other contestants. Do we believe American Idol when it talks of 35 million votes? That’s a lot of phone lines.
I would say this: Any kind of voting technology that isn’t transparent and clear is likely to be manipulated, either by smart hackers with something to gain, or by those arranging the voting.
(My colleague Carl Bialik talks about voting and power dialers in his blog a couple of days back. Thanks to Handoko for the Twitter tip.)