March Madness Poetry: Growing Pains!

One week ago, the March Madness Poetry 2013 tournament came to a close.

I hope that you enjoyed the camaraderie, the excitement, and above all the POETRY that our 64 authletes created. I certainly did. I again want to thank and congratulate Cheryl Lawton Malone for her excellent tournament run, and of course Dave Crawley for winning the 2013 championship. The Thinkier trophy will be engraved with “2013 DAVE CRAWLEY” (just below the already-present “2012 STEPHEN W. CAHILL”) this weekend, and should arrive in Pittsburgh sometime next week!

I have spent the past week catching up on life and work, and simply enjoying some other fantastic National Poetry Month events and features. My favorites include Greg Pincus’ 30 Poets 30 Days, Renee LaTulippe’s ever-expanding video poetry library, and Laura Shovan’s TechnoVerse. But I didn’t want to let too much time pass before looking back at #MMPoetry 2013 (and then hopefully resuming a more normal schedule of posts here at TKT), so … here I am, and here we go.

March Madness Poetry 2013 vs. 2012: What was different?

#MMPoetry 2013, though similar to the 2012 tournament in structure and pace, was different in a number of ways. I’d like to talk about a few of the differences that I saw, in the hopes of starting a discussion with you about the future of this event. I will not cover everything today, as I intend for this to be larger, longer discussion over a span of months. But I want to get some observations and thoughts out there now. So what was different between 2012 and 2013?

1. Becoming an authlete was a competitive process.

In 2012, #MMPoetry participants were accepted on a first come, first served basis. In 2013, writers were required to submit applications to be considered as potential authletes, and the participant roster was unveiled as an event (“Selection Sunday”) in and of itself. I may be reading too much into this, but I wonder if the competitiveness of the application process and the emotions associated with Selection Sunday may have carried through to the event itself.

Others may take exception, but I personally felt that 2013’s early round poems were on balance markedly stronger than those from #MMPoetry 2012. Was it just the makeup of writers, or did authletes work longer or more intently on their 2013 poems out of respect for the writers (in many cases their friends and quality poets themselves) who were left out of the tournament? Or to otherwise prove that they belonged? I would love for authletes to share their experience from application to selection to word assignment to poem submission. Especially those that participated in both 2012 and 2013 — did you dedicate more time to your #MMPoetry poem(s) this year? I am curious.

As for the future, I would like to hear everyone’s thoughts on both the application process and the faux-live Selection Sunday video as a means of announcing the participants. What, if anything, would you want to see changed to make it a better experience for applicants or fans?

2. Cheerleading gave way to criticism.

#MMPoetry 2012 was a bit of a love fest. Everyone cheered everyone and everything because the experience was novel and no one really knew what was going to happen next (including me!). But in 2013, that seemed to change a little, at least from my point of view. In all, readers left 2,230 comments directly on the site during the event, a 20% increase over last year’s 1,867 #MMPoetry comments. Sure, there were still lots of encouraging and congratulatory comments as readers recognized the many excellent poems that had been written in response to some extremely challenging* words. But in 2013, more points of criticism also seemed to creep into the comments section — some rather subtle, some quite direct. Not all negative criticism, mind you, just a bit more appraisal versus automatic praise. Comments about meter and rhyme, rhythm and pace, form, content, intended audience, and more all came together to create a more interesting discussion dynamic, and led to some healthy exchanges in the context of several matchups. In 2014 and beyond, I will try to enable/encourage even more constructive evaluation and discussion of the poems in each pair. I have several ideas for how to facilitate this, and I am open to your ideas as well.

*I’ll soon publish a separate post explaining my choice of word prompts in #MMPoetry 2013, which I know was a source of controversy and concern. Stay tuned!

3. Word-of-mouth and social media played an even bigger role in driving visits … and votes.

March Madness Poetry only exists thanks to the power of social media. On February 9, 2012, I had a 4-week-old website and an idea. The rest was created by you. As word of the event passed from person-to-person, blog-to-blog, and friend-to-friend, it took on a life of its own, and has kept growing with every round of poetry since.

The 2012 event saw nearly 12,000 people visit TKT about 100,000 times. People liked/shared links to the event on Facebook almost 2,500 times and on Twitter about 450 times. Fans and supporters cast 12,854 votes, or 160 median votes per contest.

The 2013 event saw over 20,000 people (+67%) visit about 150,000 times (+50%). People liked/shared links to the event on Facebook over 9,000 times (+260%) and on Twitter over 800 times (+74%). Fans and supporters cast 21,780 votes (+69%), or 261 median votes per contest (+63%).

Those increases provided event exposure to an incalculable number of new people. Remember, one tweet can reach hundreds of people (and just as many robots!) in an instant, and every Facebook share shows up as a story in your friends’ timelines, and can spider further from there. Following those Facebook and Twitter trails led me to some fascinating people and places, and it was amazing to witness just how far news of the event had traveled.

But for all of the positives, such enthusiastic sharing exposed some complications as well. In 2013 even more so than in 2012, participants (inclusive of authletes, fans, supporters, and even me) had a tough time toeing the line between advertising the event and promoting one authlete over another. This led to several very exciting and several very uncomfortable moments. The question now becomes — how do we maximize excitement and attract new long-term fans while minimizing what I’ll call “negative tension”. (Tension in any game is a good thing — but negative tension can become a drag.) Negative tension comes in several forms:

  • Some authletes with large platforms might want to help spread the word, but don’t want to come across as self-promoting, so they keep quiet. That is negative tension that closes off a channel that could otherwise attract new fans to the event, a missed opportunity that shortchanges everyone.
  • Some authletes with small/non-existent platforms might feel intimidated when matched up against an authlete with a larger platform. That is negative tension that takes the focus off of writing great poetry and puts it on the contest itself, where it doesn’t really belong.
  • Some readers might be dismayed when their preferred poem loses a particular contest because of a late “rally” by one authlete’s supporters. That is negative tension that creates suspicion among the very people for whom the event is designed — the kids, parents, and teachers who are trying to navigate the oft intimidating world of poetry, and for whom this event represents an exciting potential entry point and a dangerous potential example depending on which poems “win”, and how.

What this comes down to is that the “currency” (e.g., dollars, euros) of the event — votes — is currently both the primary driver of excitement and the sole arbiter of each matchup.

It is now clear to me after only two years that the former is unlikely to ever change. People LOVE being able to compare two things and vote as if it is a test or an election or an opinion survey, and they LOVE being able to watch the rise and fall of two opponents as if it is a sporting event. Take that away, and the potential “mass appeal” of the event may be lost.

But it is also now clear to me after only two years that the latter must change. Fortunately, there ARE ways to decide the outcome of a match other than a straight public majority vote. The trick is to devise a method that still highlights the exciting (and positive tension-generating) public vote, but that is balanced by other relevant, fair, and transparent mechanics.

And so, I now propose for discussion the following method of deciding the winner of each March Madness Poetry matchup, beginning in 2014:

The authlete who advances is the one who wins two of three of the following:

  1. Public vote — same as today
  2. Classroom vote — a prearranged sample of kids in classrooms across the grade spectrum who all vote to determine a winner
  3. Authlete vote — like a peer review, where as a term of participation each authlete must also vote on ALL of the other contests (not through the normal voting buttons, but a special page that I setup with radio buttons that they click for each matchup)

The net result is that the public vote still matters (and will still empower and give a sense of excitement to fans and supporters), but will only determine the winner if the kids’ vote and peer vote are split. This frees up authletes to promote their matchup (which no matter how they do it usually results in votes for themselves) and will help bring new readers to the event, without creating any negative tension. Using this method, we completely erase the already thin gray line that separates objective advertisement and subjective promotion and just tell authletes, fans, and supporters to activate their base in the hopes that people will “come as a friend, and leave as a fan.”

If both kids and poets agree that one authlete’s poem deserves to win, then that authlete will move on to the next round of the tournament no matter what the public vote says. But if the kids and poets do not agree, then the public vote decides the winner, and each authlete can walk away satisfied knowing that their poem won over either classrooms of kids or their own peers, even if they do not get to write again the next day.

All of this will take some re-design on my part, but honestly that was going to be necessary anyways (let the letter from my web host’s “abuse department” serve as proof). #MMPoetry is growing, and in a good way. Now it is time to rethink the dynamics of the event so that we can ensure its continued success.

I cannot do this by myself — I need your honest feedback, and as some of you will hear from me privately over the course of the next year, your skills and contacts to make this event the best that it can be. Together, directly through the event and indirectly through the connections that it builds, we can bring more high quality poetry to more kids around the world — because that is what March Madness Poetry is all about.

Your comments are invited and encouraged below.

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  • J. J. Close

    That sounds like a pretty good idea, Ed! I’ll back it for sure.

    How will the classroom vote be arranged though? One school that isn’t connected to any of the authletes?

    • Ed DeCaria


      The goal would be enough classrooms so that if one classroom was affiliated with a particular authlete their vote could be skipped for that particular matchup. Of course, too many classrooms would be tough to coordinate. Not sure the right number. Maybe a dozen?

  • Gloson Teh

    “As for the future, I would like to hear everyone’s thoughts on both the application process and the faux-live Selection Sunday video as a means of announcing the participants. What, if anything, would you want to see changed to make it a better experience for applicants or fans?”

    Make the video ACTUALLY live. :D It’s possible using Youtube.

    • Ed DeCaria

      Only if YOU are on my production team, Gloson …

  • Janet F.

    One comment on classrooms and voting. In MY school, there is only one vote able in the entire building. We are on a network and therefore no one can vote except the first person who did it. Any way to work on that? It is hard to generate interest when they can’t vote/participate in that aspect. I would guess teachers could vote on their cell phones, but I am not sure how easy it would be to encourage that…. I am curious what other schools have for voting….

  • Angie Breault

    I have to admit that I was quite intimidated by some of my opponents when I started the tournament. I do, however, feel like the voters did a great job choosing poems to advance to each new round. That being said, I still think your ideas for changing up the voting are very good and definitely should be implemented into next years tournament. :)

  • J. J. Close


    My local school is the same way. I had quite a few students from different classrooms asking if the schools vote has been used yet – since it’s only 1 vote per IP. I don’t think there is any way around that for schools because that would open it to people voting for themselves an infinite amount of times.

  • Ed DeCaria

    I am going to try to address the school thing next year. I am going to see if I can buy (or build) a voting solution that restricts votes by IP address as has been the practice for the last two years, except that allows me to whitelist specific IP addresses at my discretion to allow multiple votes. That way, I can tell schools to simply send me their IP address and then they will be “cleared” to enable individual student voting, but still prevent the public from doing so on any device.

    There are still other considerations even with that, but I will at least look into the options.

  • Gloson Teh

    To fix the voting-by-IP problem, may I suggest we change it (for the classrooms) to a voting-by-cookies system? It will fix the problem, I think.

    I’ll be happy to be on your production team, Ed. :D

    • Ed DeCaria

      Gloson, voting has been logged by IP and cookies. I can disable the cookies now, but that would require that students in classrooms vote, then clear cookies, then vote again, then clear cookies, etc. So, not an ideal process for them. PLUS it still allows a person at home to do the same thing.

      I’ll remember your last comment!

  • Diane Mayr

    Voting all sounds so complicated to me! I’m sure it can be figured out though, and March Madness can continue to grow and improve.

  • Jeanne Walbrun

    Ed – your ideas are RIGHT ON. I enjoyed both the positive/cheerleading comments, and the constructive criticism. However, the voting system has to change. It did appear to be sometimes driven by “friends” on Facebook.

    The National Council of Teachers of English might be interested in helping you set up the classroom voting. I noted from their website that they have teachers from elementary through college.

  • Carrie Finison

    I think you have come up with a good solution, Ed. Having the three votes tallied separately will smooth out any “bumps” and also encourage student participation, which is really the point of the whole thing. But it still gives the authletes an incentive to draw in voters. The only other thought I had was something along the line of “So You Think You Can Dance” rules, in which voters can vote for every contestant they like, and then the bottom X number of contestants are eliminated. But then you’d have to restructure the tournament format, probably.

  • Deborah Holt Williams

    Ed, I am so impressed with how much thought you’ve put into this, to make it more about the poems and less about who has the most contacts. I think you’ve come up with a terrific solution! I hope I make it in next year, because I enjoyed it thoroughly! Thanks for all your hard work.

  • Penny Klostermann

    I am liking your solution, too. There are a lot of us out there who aren’t as “socially” connected and it was intimidating to me. In some cases, authletes were bringing in so many votes that it seemed hopeless for their opponent. Also, once you start the promotion on social media with as much integrity as possible, it can be passed on by friends and acquaintances as “vote for my friend”, and then the authlete with the largest platform or the most social media connections comes out on top no matter how good or poor their poem. With that said, I was extremely impressed with the quality of the poetry this year and, even though I may have been disappointed that my favorite didn’t win, I felt that a quality poem moved forward.

    As to 2012 compared to 2013…I definitely took my writing more seriously this year. I saw the quality that came through in 2012, and felt I needed to up my game is I was going to have a chance at advancing. Last year I wrote a poem quickly and sent it right in. This year, I wrote and revised and sent in at the last minute trying to look at word choice and ways to strengthen. Yes! I had a huge respect for the competition in the tournament this year and wanted to produce a competitive poem.

    I have no complaints about the selection process or the selection video. I thought it was fun, and with your level of creativity, I expect you will do a great job with next year’s selection.

    Thanks again for a great two years of MMPoetry!

  • Callie Miller

    One thought I had to help limit the ‘popular’ vote would be to post poems anonymously, so that voters can’t see who wrote which poem until after they’ve voted. I know this could be easily circumvented, and may even have the potential to harm some of the fun hype (such as showing who has what seed, their word and how challenging it is, etc.). As a new authlete with pretty much zero social media backing, I know this was something I was concerned about, mainly because of what Penny mentions above: no matter how fairly we present the competition, we can’t control how others might choose to be biased.

  • Catherine Johnson

    Everything Penny said applies to me too. Great job analysing all this data, Ed. Your solution is great if the student voting can be sorted out. Thanks for all your hard work making this happen.

  • Renee LaTulippe (@ReneeMLaTulippe)

    To reiterate what we’ve already spoken about, Ed — yes! I think you have a solid plan here to keep the voting fair and even. We all know it’s about creating poetry, but as humans (and delicate poets!), we still have that need for a level playing field. I think your solutions will ameliorate (MM2014 word?) a lot of the issues.

    I will also echo Penny and say that I worked a LOT harder on my poems this year for three reasons: 1) I had 16-seed words that required some reflection and extra creativity to make work; 2) I wanted to challenge myself a little, try new things, write better than I did last year; and 3) the competition was fierce and I didn’t want to look like an imbecile. :)

    I’m not sure about the selection/application process. I like it on one hand, but on the other wonder if doing it that way will mean we’re always seeing the same poets in the competition.

    Looking forward to seeing how it all pans out for next year. Thanks for everything!

  • Lori Degman

    As others have said, I’m impressed by the thought and effort you’ve put into improving the process! I love the idea of having kids vote – after all, we’re writing our poems for them! I also like being rated by our peers! Both these things will balance out the popularity factor! I don’t have any great ideas for how to select the authletes – I just hope I’m one of them again next year!!! But, as Renee said, it would be good not to have the same poets year after year. To me, that’s a tougher fix than the voting.

    Thanks again for all the work you put into making March Madness so much fun!!!

  • Damon Dean

    this was my first year (to even be aware of MMP, and to compete) and it was as it was a fantastic experience. I think your solutions will smooth out most negative effects, without restricting participation.
    Indeed there was some tension in a few comments, and I think there were replies to those comments that offset any harm. We had an authlete tournament crowd in reality was nicer overall than actual sport events in the athletic world.
    I also wondered if a vote-type-weighting system might work, where the three types of votes had various weights. Not sure if that’s technically possible or would have any different effect than the 2-of-3-groups approach you suggested–just a thought.
    I say try anything–just keep letting this event grow and develop. I hope to get my schools involved next year.

  • Janet F.

    Ed, I think all your ideas are good ones. Maybe you can have a heading near the voting that reminds everyone that the point is to vote for the poem not the poet. Perhaps not a cure-all, but maybe a few will keep that in mind just before voting. Also even though you (as an authlete or fan) can’t control your “fans” you might also advocate for the same idea with your post or comment such as: “I’m in this tournament, come take a look, then vote for the poem you like best. If it’s me, great, if not please go ahead and vote for the poem you like better or think is the better poem.” May not change enough votes to stop the trend of name recognition voting, but it might help some along with your other voting ideas. I agree with J J in that if you open the voting to allow open votes in a school, that runs the risk of bloc votes. But maybe you can allow for a certain number per school. Not sure how that would be feasible and easy for you to set up, though. In the end it is for fun, helps create more poems for kids, gives poets/authletes a chance to write new work in a fun environment. Gets maybe new folks thinking about poetry, etc. I also think that the critique vs positive comments allows for sharing. Lightening up on the vitriol might be better, but I believe in free speech; though I also believe that you need to consider the environment and the fact that kids are reading, too. So some degree of respectful disagreement is a better model when making observations of the poems, if that is what we want for our society. IMHO. I’ll be curious to see what you have to say about your word selection ideas. I was amazingly impressed with how so many of the difficult words were handled. Is there a way to possibly publish the “best of” MM Poetry? Maybe with pre-orders? It would be nice to have the poems available to re-read.

  • Dave Crawley

    Ed, I love your ideas. Even though I benefitted from social media, I don’t think it should be the only…or even the most important…factor in deciding on a winner. I had wondered if some connection between judges and social media would work, but that’s not foolproof (witness Bristol Palin on Dancing with the Stars…) Your plan is better, and will hopefully lead to greater emphasis on voting for the poem, not the person. Kudos on an exciting…and evolving…tournament!

  • Ed DeCaria

    Keep the great feedback coming!

    So interesting to hear from 2012-2013 participants on how they approached the event differently each year.

    As for IP/cookie-based vote logging, note that if we go with a 2-out-of-3 approach, we could in theory do away with logging altogether. I’m not saying that it would be the best idea, just that even if it opened up an avenue for abuse the benefits of trying to game the system are limited, because the poem still needs to win either the kid vote or the authlete vote. Conversely, the benefits of opening up voting within schools, libraries, etc. is significant. I will of course try to find a more refined solution, but in theory the stick of dynamite approach could work fine.

    Dave, I also thought of employing a “panel of judges” as a potential means to decide each contest, and there are several people in the industry that I could envision taking on the role, but it seems a large burden to put on just a few people, and ultimately it could become too much about them rather than the poems, poets, and kids. So, I prefer a more distributed method of deciding a winner.

    More feedback, please. All perspectives welcome.

  • Josh Close

    Maybe you could employ a panel of judges (5 or 6?) and come up with a 5th way of voting as well? That way there is even more categories and the poem would have to win 3 out of 5 of them in order to advance? That would lessen the popular vote importance and the motivation for people to vote for themselves a hundred times when they realize they’d still need to win 2 other categories besides. So a poem could win popular vote 10,000 to 1,000, but still lose 4-1. I don’t know, just a thought!

  • Ed DeCaria

    Implementation is the challenge. Even 2 of 3 will involve a ton of new logistics. Remember these two things: 1) 64x of anything is harder than 1x, and 2) non-compliance is a guarantee.

    I think the authlete vote can be mostly automated, but the classroom vote will be very tricky to pull off.

    Also keep in mind that collection is just one side of it; there is also the presentation side. That is, once I have the authlete vote and classroom vote in hand, how/when should I present them publicly? Should they be revealed before or after the public vote? Which should be revealed first, or should they be revealed at the same time. Should they be revealed in real time as votes come in or in batch? Lots of things to consider …

    I think 2 of 3 is cleaner. Plus I challenge you to come up with a viable 5th method! (And I mean that constructively — I’m open to all ideas here.)

  • Janet F.

    By the way I neglected to say, again, that you have amazing ideas and skills and I think this tournament is fabulous. I applaud you for wanting to gather as many ideas a you can and are always looking to make this work well.

    I, for one, would love to see more teachers using it in class. Or a grade level working on it together. There are some very good opportunities for teaching based on many aspects of this contest, not the least among them all the tech-ways you make it work.

    I don’t think I watched the live announcement, but saw it on replay….you must have had a link for that. I thought it was good and another “bracket-ology” connection.

    Again, you bring poets and poetry aficionados together in a fine way, and it was fun talking about it on FB, too, though I know you like to have it at TKT, too, but it is almost like a conversation when a few people are “chatting” up the comments on FB. Which was completely new to me.

    I would like to go back and re-read the poems and just think about the ones I want to use with the kids from each year and see what I think. Variety is the spice of life. I think there were some great contributions last year for sure.
    Thanks, Ed.

  • Ed DeCaria

    Thanks for the comments, Janet!

    I would love for you and other teachers to offer ideas for how I can help make the event more of a teaching tool. Or just share with each other how you have or planned to use it in class. I agree that there are good opportunities.

    Facebook conversations are great because they are real time and really bring awareness to new people. Anything that happens on this site will only be seen by people who are already here, so while there is something to be said for having the comments right next to the posts/poems, conversation elsewhere is valuable in a different way.

  • Buffy Silverman

    I also like the classroom vote/authlete vote/public vote idea. One factor that you might need to reconsider if classrooms play a larger part in the decision-making–it might work better to have a more limited target age-range for poems. For example, if the classrooms that are participating are primarily 3rd-5th graders, than poems intended for the upper age range might not fare as well.
    Great ideas, Ed–I think you’ll make a wonderful tournament even better!

  • Josh Close

    With the way it is now, I see it as the public vote is mainly adult aged people. If the main goal is to get kids interested in poetry, I think that the classroom vote should be within the k-8 range, maybe even k-6. The way I see it is “Peers/Public/Kids” as far as the voting goes if Ed ends up going with the 3 way voting. In a sense, the peer vote is all adult, the kids vote should be all kids, and the public vote is a mix of both (mostly adult – based on fanbases and that adults are more apt to go through the process of voting with the technology, etc.)

  • Ed DeCaria

    Buffy, I think that the most important thing is communicating to the authletes the makeup of the classroom vote. Then they can decide for themselves how they want to approach their poem.

  • Ed DeCaria

    Josh, I was thinking of including all age/grade levels but weighting them, so something like 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th have highest representation then K-2 and 7-9 less so. So K-2 and 7-9 (higher?) get one classroom, 3rd and 6th get two classrooms each, and maybe 4th and 5th get three classrooms each. Something like that. Again, I’m completely open on this. All ideas welcome.

  • Matt Forrest Esenwine

    There has been so much discussion already and so many good ideas I’m not sure I can add anything significant…however, I would say that addressing the IP-address issue is an important step. Not only does it affect schools, but even households – for example, after I voted for the poems in the first round, my wife logged onto her computer but couldn’t vote because we share the same IP address. My two daughters (who live with my ex-wife) both wanted to vote, but they were only allowed one vote per matchup between the two of them because of the same reason.

    Not that any of this would have changed the results of my particular matchup – Robyn blew me away! – but there were some very tight matchups where only 10 or 15 votes one way or the other could have made a difference.

  • Cheryl Lawton Malone

    Sorry for jumping in so late! But ditto. The three prong approach sounds like a good blend of social media and peer review. It speaks to the reason why the reality shows use judges up to a point, before opening selection to popular voting. Heck even the writers of the Constitution did not put the entire decision in the hands of those crazy revolutionaries. About the classroom option, I wonder how feasible it is to ask elementary and middle school teachers to devote class time to the program – kudos to you if it works. I know the kids up here in the Boston Public Schools have a regimented day broken into short periods focused on specific, test oriented subjects.