Eric Johnson

Recent Posts by Eric Johnson

ProPublica’s New App Explains Why the President Sent You That Email

With the presidential horse race slowly trotting toward November, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are doing what political campaigners do best: Asking for your money.

Now, a nonprofit news site is pulling back the curtain on how the campaigns use different forms of the same email to ask for juuuuust the right amount.

ProPublica’s Message Machine is an eye-opening experiment in crowdsourced journalism. Its algorithm takes in emails users have received from political campaigns and committees, and spits out answers to two interesting questions: How many versions of that same email were sent out, and why?

After all, we aren’t just voters anymore — we’re customers.

For decades, political campaigns have collected and used data about potential supporters to target their efforts toward specific areas and demographic groups. But since 2000, reliance on things like targeted emails and online voter databases has become the new normal.

As the New York Times Magazine’s Jon Gertner noted in 2004:

… someone who appears nonpartisan, someone who might even think of himself as nonpartisan, may nevertheless have a political DNA that the parties will be able to decode.

So, the Message Machine will work in the opposite direction — matching up users’ “political DNA” (i.e., demographic info, which they’ll have to provide) with the one email they’ve received. Then, it will show how that email is different from similar emails sent to people with different DNA.

Previously, ProPublica had asked readers to forward the emails they received from any and all political campaigns to But the (admittedly cool) products, like “You Probably Don’t Know Janet” emerged long after the original emails had dropped off most peoples’ inboxes.

Web developer Jeff Larson calls the new Message Machine a “living news app,” since it will have answers in “semi-real time,” provided that it has received enough similar emails to figure out a trend.

In its first few months (without the real-time functionality launching today), the Message Machine’s users submitted about 9,000 emails, Larson said. But about a third of them aren’t usable, because they come from local or state elections, and the Machine doesn’t have enough examples to look at.

One of the advantages to the “living news app,” though, is that that can easily change.

“If there is a hot race, there are a lot of emails and it looks like there’s a lot of targeting going on, we’ll include that in the app,” Larson said.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google