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Campaign buttons

I've been surfing the official Web sites of the three major presidential candidates. Gore. Bush. And yes, Nader. This isn’t the most exciting way to kill an afternoon, but believe me, I’m no masochist. My fellow Netizens, I’m doing this as a public service.

See, the Internet’s potential as a useful political communication tool is obvious. I think the Web should be our best way to find out about any candidate’s platform. I can imagine an alternate universe where even the most slimy political wannabe considers it their public duty to post their true positions, posits and pronouncements online — in great detail. And every wired American citizen — in the spirit of civic responsibility — would log on to learn what each candidate really stands for.

In theory at least, this approach would beat the pants off old-school media. After all, can any campaign issue be substantially spelled out in a 30-second television commercial or radio spot? Online, politicians have virtually infinite space to discuss the finer points. All they have to do is use it.

With that ideal in mind, I visited georgebush.com, algore.com and the optimistically titled votenader.com to see if anyone hit the mark. I reviewed each site for charisma (how does the site look?), character (how well does the site use Web technology?) and, of course, content (does the site have anything substantial to say about the issues?). Here are the exit poll results.

GEORGEBUSH.COM

Charisma: Colorful and slick, georgebush.com is the king of flash. Pop-up windows emerge from nowhere. Drop-down menus cascade in pretty yellow boxes. George Dubya’s glassy eyes glaze over from a stylized TV-set image. I’m sweet-talked by all this eye candy — who cares what the issues are? Check out that cool logo!

Character: Even online, you can tell Georgie’s got cash. There’s a Texas-sized pile of expensive features: Trivia games (“Where did George first meet wife Laura?”). Contests (“Name the Presidential Plane!”). E-commerce (Bush-brand bottled water and “Bush-Cheney wearables”). Amazon.com must be jealous.

Content: Flashy design and stupid Web tricks aside, georgebush.com begs the question: Where’s the beef? It’s in there … somewhere. Near the bottom of the page, there’s a little section titled “Issues In-Focus,” where — if you dig far enough — you’ll discover, among other things, that Georgie favors a nearly 7 percent tax cut for the very rich. More than enough to pay for all the stupid Web tricks that will surely debut soon on the Rockefeller family home page.

ALGORE.COM

Charisma: Boring white background. Blocky text. A huge, confusing interface that could only have been designed by committee. What is this? The Web site for a software company? Al, you’re boring. Even on the Net.

Character: Gore may think he invented the Web, but he certainly hasn’t figured out how to use it well. In an effort that seems to shout “Look at me! I’m the most wired candidate,” algore.com packs nearly every imaginable Web doohickey onto the front page. For each useful feature (like regular e-mail updates), we get half a dozen time wasters such as instant messaging (to whom?) and the watching-paint-dry excitement of the NashvilleCam (“Live shots of Gore 2000 HQ!”).

Content: So what about the issues? It took me 15 minutes of searching to find them. And they read like press releases (“They said it couldn’t be done. Al Gore … proved them wrong.”). At least eight different Web firms collaborated to create algore.com. In an effort to please everyone, algore.com winds up pleasing nobody.

VOTENADER.COM

Charisma: With an incredibly basic Web design that recalls the Web circa 1996, votenader.com won’t win any cyberbeautification awards. But compared to the big-boy sites, its simple, clean approach is inspirational. Easy clicks like “Why Ralph Is Running” and “What You Can Do” actually do what they say.

Character: Clearly, Ralph is practicing simple living. Aside from e-mail updates and video clips, there are few Web toys here. We must assume that the Nader campaign is spending most of its cash in the nonvirtual world.

Content: Ah, content! Issues! Votenader.com is all about these. The glitz is minimal, but imagine … when you click “Issues,” a complete list of topics appears. (Want to learn about Ralph’s stance on the environment? Follow the link including full-text transcriptions of Ralph’s letters to the Sierra Club.) There’s no clutter. No spin. I don’t feel insulted. I’m happy.

AND THE WINNER IS…

Call me a sequoia-hugging cyber progressive, but I’ll have to give the virtual brass ring to Ralph on this one. Votenader.com doesn’t look good, but it gives you the goods on what Ralph’s all about. George! Al! Take a memo: Don’t tease us with fancy technology. We’d rather you tell it like it is.

But I suspect that’s exactly what the two major parties don’t want to do. By distracting us with Web gimmicks, maybe we’ll forget to ask what this election is really about.

Perhaps Ralph Nader is right: There is no difference between the two major parties. And rather than give us an easy place to surf and learn what they stand for, both Bush and Gore have chosen to do something else: Push our buttons instead.

Adam Druckman writes about computers for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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