I am not a newbie – I’ve been at CES for an eternity, as the emcee and creative force behind the Last Gadget Standing and the Mobile Apps Showdown – two events at CES that both rely heavily on the people’s vote to decide on a winner.

There was a time when the people’s vote meant something. Either it meant you trusted the company, you had a passionate interest in its product, or you simply thought it was a cool idea. Why else would you show up to vote?

This year will mark the end of a decade of trusting in the people’s vote and it’s all because of social networking.  Today, the winner of the people’s vote is content-free; it’s a cross between a popularity contest, a shouting match, and a hacker’s club.

This year’s popular vote for The Last Gadget Standing and Mobile Apps Showdown made Florida’s hanging chads look like child’s play. Here’s how we noticed that our world had changed. A product that hasn’t even been announced yet starts to get thousands of votes on our people’s choice voting page – so many votes that our servers  crawl to a halt.

Suspicions heightened, I make a call to the company asking how it’s possible for them to have such a strong lead. They proceed to tell me the story of the ShayTards – evangelical followers of a guy named Shay Carl, whose disciples hang on to his every blog. “He’s our spokesperson,” the company tells me, “his people will do whatever he tells them to do.”

Who knew? Now, I call a few other companies to see what they’ve been doing to garner votes and it runs the gamut from email blasts to hiring professional bloggers. The comment fields for each product are filled with useless endorsements like “Cool product”  at best, or “I was told to vote here” at worst.   Meanwhile, the website is nearly at a standstill and my office is under siege from voters complaining about not being able to access the site.

A quick call to our hosting company results in an upgrade to more space. No improvement. A second call results in a second upgrade. Like the kid who keeps getting detention in school we start to realize we’ve got bigger problems than server space. Turns out there were 40 “denial of service” scripts running against our voting page. They made it impossible to vote and they were equally impossible to track down to a source.

Finally we moved our vote to a hosting company that’s probably one level below DOD clearance (at great expense, I might add). We believe that we’re back on track. But who knows?

The point of the story? If you’re naïve enough to believe that crowd sourcing is really indicative of what the crowd thinks, or that the people can be trusted to vote thoughtfully based on real information…think again. I used to believe that the people knew best; now I believe that they’ll do whatever it takes.

Last Gadget and Mobile Apps will continue, but you better believe that the rules will change.

For now, we’re still honoring the people’s vote. Head over to Mobile Apps Showdown or Last Gadget Standing and do your civic duty.

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