Meet the latest Vocativ journalism experiment: A “Tinder for politicians” app

“Tinder for politicians” conjures up so many bad images: Do you get matched on a date with a candidate where they try to convince you to vote for them? Do the politicians date each other, Olympic Village style, on the campaign trail?

But the actual app, called VOTR, makes more sense than that. It’s a creative journalistic experiment with editorial aspirations behind it, albeit ones it may not achieve.

The team at digital publication Vocativ built the app to connect millennial voters to politicians in a compelling way. You can quickly surf through the Senate candidates running in the midterm election, gleaning bite-sized bits of information, like “this candidate has trouble remembering their Twitter password” and “this candidate has the nickname Milk Dud because he loses elections.” The profiles list the rundown of all the issues you agree on, transformed into emoticons. Pro-life is an emoticon of a baby. Anti-gay marriage is an emoticon of a man and woman holding hands. Pro-gun control is a picture of a flower.

Once you’re matched with a rep, which happens automatically by swiping right, you don’t chat them up in the hopes of landing a date (bummer). Instead, you’re prompted to follow them on social media channels.

Screenshots from Votr. Left: First half of a candidate profile. Middle: Second half of a candidate profile. Third: Match screen.

Screenshots from Votr. Left: First half of a candidate profile. Middle: Second half of a candidate profile. Third: Match screen.

The goal is to counteract cynicism about the political process by bringing candidates to life. With colorful biographical information on each prospect, VOTR hopes it will help young voters identify with politicians and open themselves up to new perspectives. It’s a touchy-feely goal, but it’s fitting with the journalistic process. When elections season rolls around, newsrooms brainstorm, “How can we make this interesting for our readers?”

To Vocativ, a Tinder-like interface made the most sense for the learning experience. “We saw it as an interaction that was familiar, an easy win with our particular demographic,” head of product Elena Haliczer told me.

Building a web app based on a dating product isn’t a typical election reporting approach. But Vocativ has a history of experimenting with technology to reach its millennial audience. Most notoriously, the company claims its OpenMind software combs the “deep web” for news insight — places not indexed by Google, such as subscription research journals, spreadsheets, and social media activity in foreign languages.

The approach has been both heralded as “VICE, with a lot more data” and criticized as being an overhyped technology that doesn’t work as it’s purported to. Either way, it’s clear Vocativ wants its brand to be (sexy) technology meets journalism. It’s the message it uses to strike deals with television stations and garner coverage from the likes of Rolling Stone.

VOTR fits squarely with that attempt. It’s a unique effort for a news organization — to invest resources in building a mobile app, particularly one with a flippant “Tinder-for-x” take on something as dry as midterm elections. But just as with OpenMind, it’s not necessarily a fail-proof strategy. Millennials may love flipping through faces of people they might date, but do they really care to do the same for politicians? Vocativ wouldn’t release any usage statistics, so we have no idea whether VOTR helped engage people in the midterm elections.

Furthermore, boiling a complicated candidate history down to a list of emoticons and a quirky fact raises its own ethical quandary. VOTR users aren’t necessarily receiving the full picture of each politician they surf on the app. “A lot did get lost in the distillation of that, but those are necessarily product decision that make for the simplicity and fun of the overall experience,” Haliczer says.

Despite its potential drawbacks, VOTR is a creative attempt to use new technology — and social tech innovations like the Tinder design — to tell a story. We don’t know whether the swipe right and left approach is as effective for election eduction as it is for dating, but maybe VOTR will be more transparent with its numbers in the future.