How to Watch Tonight's Debate Without Actually Watching It

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A real-time web app wants to take the pundits out of the process.

One of the best things about presidential debates is their spontaneity: They test how candidates perform, relatively unscripted, before a live national audience. And one of the worst things about presidential debates is ... their spontaneity, since debates test how candidates perform, relatively unscripted, before a live national audience. For all that we gain from seeing candidates speak without the benefit of Teleprompters and index cards, the format can emphasize performance over substance. Pundits, and viewers along with them, often focus on theatrical minutiae -- audible sighs, visible watch-checks -- over the words being exchanged.

A group of programmers wants to fix that. And they want to do the fixing, actually, with words. Sosolimited and the Creators Project have written an algorithm that live-transcribes each presidential debate to create what they call "a second lens into the debate." The re/construct web app creates a transcript of the proceedings and analyzes it in pretty much real time -- identifying frequently used words and phrases, highlighting trending topics, and, intriguingly, emphasizing the deceptiveness and authenticity of the candidates as they're speaking. (To do that, the algorithm compares candidates' use of language to typical clues for lying and truth-telling: the use of the word "I," the use of the word "we," etc.) The algorithm compares Obama and Romney both to each other and to candidates from past debates to give viewers a sense of how their words relate to each other.

The "high-stakes, verbal situation," Sosolimited's John Rothenberg says, "really allows you to look at language."

The point of all this is to give viewers a new, data-rich way to experience the debate. But it is also to get opinion-slinging pundits, quite literally, out of the picture -- to give viewers a way to decide for themselves who won and who lost. A web-based, visually limited approach also allows viewers to experience the substance of the debate -- the words, the ideas -- rather than the theatrics. While, quite possibly, having a little fun in the process. "It's not designed to be this super-serious, analytical tool," Rothenberg says. "It's much more about -- in a fun, playful way -- bringing out moments that happen in the debate."

Hat tip @pbump.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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