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Can Facebook Fans Predict American Idol Results?

Facebook "fanatics" have accurately predicted the bottom three in the past three weeks.
Tis the season of America's favorite white-knuckled adventure in opinion gathering: American Idol.

Each week sees a blend of hype and talent reaching a crescendo as -- obligatory drum roll and slow pan of contestant close-ups, please -- a would-be star gets voted off the show.

Such viewer anxiety need not be. The "Idol Fanatic" Facebook page has an application through which fans can vote for their favorite contestants. So far, the page's 1,600 members have perfectly predicted the week's winner and bottom three.

Researchers in Washington State University's Social and Economic Sciences Research Center, the largest university-based survey research center in the Pacific Northwest, explain how this could happen.

"This isn't really what we would consider a phone poll; instead, it is a self-selected survey," says Director John Tarnai. "That is, people self-select themselves into the survey, which I think probably explains why the Facebook page can predict the winners. In both cases, it is people who are interested in American Idol and the contestants who self-select themselves into the survey. The fact that some people use the telephone and others use a Facebook page or texting is less important than that they are interested enough in American Idol to want to send in their votes."

The operating principle is what Danna Moore, the center's associate director, calls saliency -- the strong interest of the voting viewer. The stronger the interest, the more likely the act of voting.

To keep with this week's theme of "inspiration," you might say both the phone and the Facebook voters are inspired. You might also say, as does Moore, that neither method makes for a legitimate survey, as it doesn't reflect the broader population.

It does not tell you anything about the portion of people in the population that had no opportunity to participate as they aren't watching the show," Moore says. "...Chances are that people not watching the show would be very different and they are also not asked to vote."

That may be fine for the show, which has close to 30 million viewers and voters. But it may not be the best measure for the winners.

Says Moore: "The big question is: Will people selected on the show by these methods be true winners or successful in the long run when the whole population votes with their dollars and buys albums over time?"

(For more on that, note how Clay Aiken, season two runner-up, has outsold winner Ruben Studdard by nearly two to one.)

So far, the "Idol Fanatic" page and its blog have held off on announcing results ahead of the show. But starting Wednesday, they will be announcing results before the results show starts on the East Coast, said spokesperson Andrea Ragni.

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