Comment is free--but maybe it shouldn't always be so free. So goes the reasoning behind a site called PolicyMic.com, which uses virtual currency and gamification techniques to help foster civil and enlightening discussion forums. The Harlem-based startup completes a round of angel financing this month, and is about to launch a similar site, PolicyMic.fr, in France next week.
There are a number of oft-cited problems with political discourse on the web: segregated echo chambers, Godwin's law , and a general surfeit of armchair punditry among them. This is unfortunate; healthy debate is crucial to a healthy democracy, and yet the Internet has not yet become a place animated by the spirit of the best traditions of offline debate.
Chris Altchek and Jake Horowitz want to change that. The Harvard and Stanford grads were, as they put  it on their site, "longtime friends, but political nemeses who have been debating each other for as long as we can remember." Their debates were civil, enlightening, fun--and they wanted their peers to be able to engage in similar debates online.
At the heart of PolicyMic is its innovative commenting system. The site uses a virtual currency called "Mics." When you first sign up on the site, you have 0 Mics, and your voice is limited; comments are limited to 300 characters. If what you write is insightful though, people can vote up your comments, earning you Mics in the process. As you gain more and more Mics, you level up, first to become a "Contributor," then an "Anchor," and finally a "Pundit." A "Pundit" is someone who has earned 150 Mics, and is allowed to go on at a leisurely 750 characters per comment.
The "gamification of everything" trend can become a bit tiresome, perhaps, but here is an instance where its use is almost transcendent. Though the PolicyMic team says their system is about making political debate fun, and thereby more engaging for disengaged youth, it's real genius lies elsewhere. By anchoring its comments system with a rewards system, PolicyMic has the capability to tame what is often the most depressing part of many otherwise interesting websites. Scanning through articles on PolicyMic, there is still a fair share of griping and snark to be found. But the overall vibe of the comments forums--readers use their real names and photographs, as well--has more in common with a college debate society than the black hole that follows most articles on the web.
Altchek tells Fast Company that the team carefully designed the system "to push users to think before they write." In one high-profile instance, Condoleezza Rice once debated on PolicyMic, and "we did not have to remove a single comment," says Altchek.
PolicyMic is not brand-new; it actually launched in June. But many of the most interesting developments have only come recently, or are on the horizon, Altchek says. "We've continued to launch new features to make getting informed and discussing politics fun for millennials," he says, pointing to a community-run story ideas queue and an allies/rivals follow system, among other features. (The ability to follow rivals--people "your respect but disagree with," Altchek calls them--is key to preventing PolicyMic from becoming another online echo chamber.) Altchek also tells us that the team is launching a site in France in time for the French presidential elections--Altchek's mother is French, and he follows France's politics closely--and that the team will be finishing a round of angel investing at the end of this month.
As the election season gears up, PolicyMic is poised to gain a larger following; Altchek says the site's traffic is up 50% over the last week. "Millennials will follow this election," he says. "We believe millennials want to have a place for fun and smart discussion."
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