After a day poking around on Dr. Ben Carson's app—the campaign's "official supporter community," according to its description—I learned that the retired neurosurgeon turned Republican presidential frontrunner received his medical degree from the University of Michigan and holds 67 honorary doctorates. I was reminded that Cuba Gooding Jr. played him in a TV movie based on his book "Gifted Hands." I selected the issues I cared most about this election, multiple choice-style. And I amassed 1,710 coins that I have no idea what I'm supposed to do with.
I am not exactly sure what a presidential candidate's app should do, but, after a long period of study, I am confident that Carson's app doesn't do it.
All these hours later, I am coin rich, but useful knowledge poor. Scrolling through the app, I couldn't find basic policy points about, say, Carson's education platform, though I did find people asking about it on the forums. These forums—entirely unsearchable and frustrating to navigate—also featured people speculating about a hypothetical Carson administration and the environment, as well as farther afield concerns like what he thinks about crypto-currencies and the age of the earth.
But if you are curious about any of these things, the app will not help you. There actually isn't a section on issues at all. Just a page that aggregates Carson's various social media outputs (which is great if you want to read his campaign's official account retweeting other people saying nice stuff about Ben Carson all day), the forums, a collection of his YouTube videos, and a series of "challenges" that reward you with weak praise and the aforementioned coins.
It's messy, it's clunky to navigate, and it fails at what you might think would be a priority for a candidate trying to establish his credentials with the voting public: basic information about his candidacy.
But then again, Carson's campaign has done little to fill in those blanks. It isn't the app's fault that the Republican presidential candidate currently leading in the polls doesn't actually have a platform.
The "Ben on the Issues" section of his website dedicates a handful of extraordinarily general sentences to things like the Second Amendment ("I cannot and will not support any efforts to weaken The 2nd Amendment"), health care ("More freedom and less government in our health care system will mean lower costs, more access, and continued innovation"), and, bizarrely, an entire section dedicated to keeping Guantanamo open ("Keeping Gitmo open is a critical element in our never-ending efforts to keep the American people safe from another cataclysmic terrorist attack").
Carson himself often seems just as hard-pressed for detail. In last week's debate, Carson's tax plan—arguably the closest thing he's offered to a formal policy—tripped him up as he tried to explain why, even though he had previously backed a 10% tithing tax, he didn't actually back a 10% tithing tax. He also stumbled to explain how he would fill the $1.1 trillion hole that plan—even if he raised his flat tax to 15%—would dig. ("When we put all the facts down, you will be able to see that it's not true. It works out very well," was his only rebuttal.)
Which reminds me of the coins. What is going on with those coins.
Every time you do something on the Carson app, you are rewarded. Answer a poll question about Carson, get 50 coins.
Tell the app your preferred form of content, get 20 coins.
I just so happen to respond to positive reinforcement the way others might respond to powerful narcotics, so I completed as many challenges as I could. (I also found a way to cheat the system by answering the same trivia question over and over again, earning hundreds of coins for repeatedly identifying Carson's undergraduate major: psychology.)
After clearing 1,700, I opened the tab called "My Gifts," eager to check out the bounty that awaited me.
So imagine my horror when I found this:
According to Top Fan, the platform's maker, the coins are meant to be traded in for stuff related to your "influencer"—in this case, Ben Carson—but there is nothing to actually use them on in the "My Gifts" section. No bumper sticker, no time with Carson, no free copy of one of his many books. Nothing.
Frustrated, I looked at how other Top Fan Influencers treat their supporters. Matchbox Twenty, for example, offers the following:
And here's Jamie Foxx's fan haul:
Based on rewards alone, I would much prefer a President Matchbox Twenty.
So what is the point of this app? There is no point.
But judging from the people who use it, the app can at least minimally facilitate conversation among people who like Ben Carson. A few dozen or so regular users log in to ask questions like, "If elected do you think Ben Carson would deliver on most of his promises?" (One response offered the non-sequitur that, yes, as a doctor, Carson would keep his promises. He then suggested the question-asker watch the "Gifted Hands" TV movie for additional proof.) Another asked the group to brainstorm a chant in support of Carson. (My favorite: "Just what the country ordered." Second favorite: "B.C. 2 D.C.")
Another function of the forum: Figuring out how to use the Ben Carson app. People ask the group how to get beyond "bronze user" status, since the app assigns user rankings for reasons that remain unclear. No one could answer, but someone did suggest that "we all learn together" before asking how to start a forum thread.
Another user complained, "Dr. Carson deserves a better mobile app. This thing is buggy."
After an inordinate amount of time noodling around, I had no better grasp on Carson's actual positions than I did before I logged on and started collecting coins. So I gave up and switched over to Jamie Foxx's app instead. I would find about the same amount of policy detail on display, but at least I might win a "White House Down" prize package.