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  Timothy Feddersen
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Timothy Feddersen

Faculty Research: Timothy Feddersen, MEDS

Political virtuoso
Through an online political simulation, Prof. Timothy Feddersen is exploring the world of virtual decision-making

by Kari Richardson

Just days before a watershed election, Timothy Feddersen, the Wendell Hobbs Professor of Managerial Politics, has gone online to track the unfolding contest.

The candidates? They are students in the Kellogg School professor's undergraduate seminar on online democracy who have assumed Internet identities in an elaborate quarter-long political simulation he calls "Virtua Politics."

As part of the exercise, Feddersen, who is also chair of the Kellogg Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences Department, has assigned each student a pseudonym to obscure gender and real-life friendships, as well as two fictional characteristics he calls "ver" and "mer" to approximate real-life policy positions. These characteristics are measured on a scale of one to 10.

Students are charged with organizing into states and electing a leader — first of their individual state and then of the assembled "country." Along the way, they receive points based on how similar their characteristics are to those of their elected leaders.

Such simulations are more than just interesting role-plays: They may help reveal how people make decisions online, an emerging area of interest with implications for trade associations, corporate boards, businesses, student groups and even long-standing political institutions.

"The problems people encounter when they interact online are significantly different than those they encounter when they interact face to face," says Feddersen, whose Virtua Politics simulation also includes a primitive system of trade.

"We have thousands of years of experience with democratic decision-making," he adds. Far less is known about how relatively new technologies such as email, instant messaging, Internet access, message boards and chat rooms affect the outcome of group deliberations.

The Kellogg School professor first became interested in online decision-making more than a decade ago, after reading about an Internet-based community that struggled to implement a democracy after one member flouted protocol by taking control of others' characters. More recently, Feddersen has been intrigued by the medium's ability to connect like-minded groups of people — think of the money that presidential contender Howard Dean raised online — but its apparent failure in allowing groups to forge the coalitions often necessary for political victory.

While many of the same conflicts and disputes exist between individuals both on- and offline, the Internet has few of the institutions the real world relies on to sort out problems.

"To study the impact of technology on self-governing groups," Feddersen says, "we needed software that would allow groups to approximate institutions: to make proposals, discuss them and vote."

Join the discussion online:
Share your virtual decision-making strategies, insights and experiences with your alumni peers.

Feddersen partnered with Kellogg colleague Daniel Diermeier, the IBM Distinguished Professor of Regulation and Competitive Practice, who was also looking to develop such a tool, and Northwestern University's Academic Technologies division. Together, the group produced Ayewear, a software that allows users to share Web links, send email and instant messages, visit chat rooms and post notes on message boards.

Among the many questions ripe for exploration are how groups slog through the vast amounts of information online to reach consensus and how leaders emerge to guide decision making in the absence of face-to-face communication.

Just a couple months spent observing students complete the online simulation using Ayewear already has yielded some surprises for Feddersen—and plenty of areas for future investigation. If someone had asked him before the academic term began which type of candidate was most likely to win the simulation's "national" election, he would have answered a moderate.

That assumption proved incorrect. A more extreme candidate was victor, suggesting the importance of social networking and trade relationships over policy positions.

"It looks like the candidates who were better positioned to win were those who successfully made relationships with others using the software's communication technology," Feddersen says. "One thing that was surprising was how important instant messaging was. Of all the online communications, it seems to be the one that most closely replicates that face-to-face connection we have when we're talking."

While Feddersen thinks it's unlikely Americans will elect a president online for some time to come, the research he will undertake is likely to have more immediate application for companies, student groups and corporate boards that embrace the Internet as a place to decide their futures.

Thus begins a new history of decision-making that may well span another few thousand years.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University