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Website Tests How Political Opposites Actually Discuss Differences

By now, a couple of generations of moviegoers are familiar with the disembodied voice in a cornfield that leads Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) to risk all for a baseball diamond. Web developer Pascal Rettig is not in as precarious a position as that fictional farmer, yet he has challenged himself by constructing a social stadium of sorts.

Political Screaming Match is a digital seed sower's attempt to answer his own question: "If I build it, will they scream?" The website asks visitors to input their phone number and select their position on "Obamacare." They are then connected to an anonymous phone call with a user of the opposing view.

Rettig, the chief technology officer of Fundraise.com and a seasoned computer consultant, had long been observing the theatrics of heated television round tables with skepticism. "I have very strong opinions on all these things — but I don't think I would ever get into a screaming match about it," he says.

However, spend any period of time in the comments under an online report on the health care debate, and it quickly becomes obvious that there are certain forums where people will talk a big talk.

"I want to see if we create a platform that pushes it as far to the extreme as possible, how will people react to that ... what [will] people do?" Rettig says. He hypothesizes that genuine screams would be few and far between.

"I don't think that's how normal people talk and discuss," says Rettig. That was his jumping-off point for developing the website with his wife, Martha, whose design skills lent themselves to the braying donkey and trumpeting elephant positioned on either side of "Political Screaming Match."

Short of adding obscenities, "I couldn't think of a more extreme name," Rettig says.

But Rettig's platform did not come screeching into the blogosphere. The developer posted a link to Reddit on June 29, and it subsequently found its way to a few tech-related blogs.

Frequenters of a news feed associated with Ycombinator.com greeted Rettig's creation with initial doubt, followed by delight: "I was expecting more some shouting match on who can scream his candidate's name the longest/loudest," wrote one commenter. "Didn't expect that level of sophistication."

According to Rettig, of the 120 users who had signed up as of Tuesday, only 30 had made themselves available to contact. He says he'd like to see the number of people willing to commit to the endeavor rise and surmises that "most people are too scared to talk to someone on the phone (or don't want to give up their cell number)."

Rettig will be posting the best conversations as audio on an affiliated Tumblr blog, in the coming days. He describes his best recorded phone call thus far as "actually sort of endearing and kinda funny."

This phone call between strangers in California and Massachusetts lasted 37 minutes. Toph Tucker, the East Coast party in the dialogue, stumbled upon a link to Rettig's site on waxy.org — a blog he frequents daily.

Intrigued, Tucker input his phone number and took a look at the two "Obamacare" views provided, choosing "Making us socialists" over "Good for everyone."

"Good for everyone doesn't make for good screaming," says Tucker, who entered the phone conversation screaming about socialism — somewhat disingenuously, he admits. "I haven't developed an opinion coherent enough that I would be willing to scream at a stranger."

Luckily, California wasn't put off. "He was very much a socialist," says Tucker, implying that perhaps the two positions on the new health care law weren't as mutually exclusive as Rettig intended them to be.

"He saw me as an impressionable young 'un,'" Tucker says of his conversation partner. After asking Tucker if he could "test [his] intelligence," the conversation ran the gamut from presidential history to Adam Smith's invisible hand.

"He did most of the talking and I was happy to listen," says Tucker, 22. "I did this thing in the first place because I enjoy fielding opinions."

Rettig plans to conduct Political Screaming Match as a "one-issue website," always keeping the topic at hand both pertinent and contentious. Up next? Possibly the issue of class warfare, Rettig says.

In Tucker and his partner's case, achieving a memorable discourse seems to have been as simple as carving out the time: "The counterparty was preparing for a barbecue, but apparently it wasn't very urgent."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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