By: Noah J. Nelson
As social media comes of age, a host of platforms for social engagement and online organizing are making their presence known, from sites like Ruck.us to Avaaz. While the spectre of slackatavism still lingers over the entire realm of online political action, the last year has shown just how potent the marriage of social media and boots on the ground organizing can be.
This past week saw one of the clearest signs yet just how seriously the Silicon Valley business community is taking this trend, with the announcement that $6.25 million has been secured for the Community Organizing System (COS) platform NationBuilder in a funding round led by the powerhouse venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Causes co-founder Joe Green has stepped out from behind the scenes to take the role of President of NationBuilder; he had kept his role as a co-founder of the platform secret during the start-up's first year. He takes on the mantle of NationBuilder co-founder along with CEO Jim Gilliam and lead designer Ā Jesse Haff. Also stepping up are Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz and Sean Parker, whose credits include Napster, Facebook, and having Justin Timberlake play him in a David Fincher film.
NationBuilder doesn't lack for Silicon Valley star wattage, that's for sure.
The proof, as ever, is in the talent and the code. NationBuilder allows non-technically inclined people to put together a heavy duty campaign site as easily as one might start up a WordPress blog. As for the talent, NationBuilder is no slouch in that department, either. Co-founder Jim Gilliam wound up in the spotlight last year thanks to a speech of his that went viral entitled "The Internet is My Religion", in which the former evangelical Christian laid out the story of his personal battle with cancer and how the Internet quite literally saved his life.
Photo Courtesy: NationBuilder.comThis image is from NationBuilder.com.
Gilliam is a striking presence in person. Exceptionally tall and long limbed, he is measured and articulate in conversation, carrying with him an expansive background as both a technologist and a media producer. His first professional life was as the Chief Technology Officer of Business.com. After 9-11 he became politicized, and rose from the position of research intern to producer at Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films. In his work at NationBuilder, Gilliam brings these two backgrounds together--merging his technological prowess with the lessons learned cutting through the online noise in order to distribute the documentaries online.
"It's harder and harder to grab people's attention," Gilliam said. "You can't just buy television advertising and expect for anyone to pay attention to it. So even big companies have this problem. And there's this model that's been worked on for literally thousands of years called community organizing. It started with Moses, right? Its the idea of building relationships, talking with people, holding events and organizing around this sort of model.
"A whole generation of folks now have this opportunity to not ask permission from the traditional gatekeepers."
With the gatekeepers gone, however, people are beginning to learn that there is a lot more to building an audience than just having the best idea or a lot of talent. So much that it gets in the way of what they want to do.
"You've got Twitter over here and you have Youtube, and Facebook and then you need an email list and so these folks feel like: I just want to play my music, and then they spend all day long dealing with all of these different tools," said Gilliam. "We provide a set of tools for them to do that and it just fades into the background. They stop having to worry about it. It's work because you do have to talk to people, respond to them and do a variety of things like that. Its not magic, but instead of organizing the technology--which a lot of them are forced to do right now--you should be organizing people."
The same issues that artists and media makers face are also bearing down on activists and politicians. Glliam said he founded the parent company of NationBuilder because while the Internet has democratized many industries he wanted to see if the Internet could "bring democracy to democracy." While the world of campaign consultants, gerrymandering, voter files, and delegate counts may seem like an unholy amalgam of magic and science to those who watch John King play with interactive maps on CNN, the reality contains a lot less glamour.
"Turns out that politics is all just counting numbers," Gilliam said. "That's actually all it is, campaigns. All you have to do is count the numbers better than the other person counts numbers and you can basically determine at the beginning of the campaign how many votes you need. And then the question is: who's going to find them first? Obviously it's more complicated than that because people aren't going to give you their vote if they don't like your message. There's all kind of stuff like that, but really all it boils down to is: you're counting voters."
Indeed, the great innovation of the man hailed (and feared) as one of the great political strategists of our time--Karl Rove--was the use of direct mail to reach voters. As it turns out, what you may think of as junk mail had far more influence over the American electoral process than anyone should really be comfortable with. Gilliam said that too has changed.
"It turns out that that's not working as well anymore. You don't pay attention to the media, you don't pay attention to what the politicians are saying because it's all bullshit and nobody believes them anymore.
"Everybody is trying to deal with this, but the politicians are probably the furthest behind and the people that have the most at stake, because they actually have to get somebody to vote for them. A company can let is slide for a while because they've got existing customers, but politicians, they live and die based on getting somebody's vote. And it's harder and harder to reach these people because what they're saying is total nonsense as it's filtered through the media. That whole thing is busted."
As Gilliam sees it, the way the game of politics is played now forces prospective candidates to be inauthentic. Canidates who want to maintain their electability dispose of what makes them human, and in so doing disenfranchise voters. Despite the fact that our conversation took place months before the GOP nomnation fight began, Gilliam described the very dynamic playing out in the battle between Mitt Romney and the Rick Santorum. The former consistently described by the media as "electable" and the latter as "sincere".
Gilliam suggests that the people who make it through this system are fundamentally the wrong people to be leading.
"Part of the reason why-- there's a lot of reasons I wanted to do NationBuilder-- but that's part of the reason: making it possible for a new kind of leader to be successful. One who can be actually authentic, actually explain things to people, be a real person.
"That's a fundamentally different person from who currently gets elected."
Gilliam's worldview encompasses a complexity that seems to be missing in American political discourse. Perhaps it is borne out of his broad life experience, which has seen take on so many roles and points of view. More to the point, it resonates with an undercurrent that has been rising for years now.
"The divide is not left vs. right. The divide is the people vs. the powerful. That's not ideological. I think there's a lot more in common with the populists on the left and the right then they'd care to admit. All it really boils down to it is whether or not you think big government is bad or big corporations are bad. Which one is worse. That's all it really boils down to. Can we just say 'Hey, both of them are bad'."
As a company, NationBuilder is decidedly non-partisan. Any and all who are able to pony up the monthly fee are welcome to use its hybrid of Content Management Systems and Customer Relationship Management to run anything from a political campaign to a band website. In talking with Gilliam, however, the sense that this is part of a wider vision of how the world should be emerges.
The future of democracy, after all, must inevitably embrace the Internet in some fashion. While efforts to try out online voting face massive security challenges, the possibility of participating in elections from the comfort of our living rooms is a very 1950's type of "rocket ship future" idea. Not all that practical or necessary.
Unfortunately for us, the need to change is becoming more self evident on a daily basis.
"The reason we created representative democracy," said Gilliam, "and have these 400 people that go and represent us, and this whole concept, is that we couldn't go and do that ourselves. We had to find some people to do this. It physically took a long time to go there. Obviously the Internet gets rid of all that. We have two fundamental problems right now in representative democracy in the United States. There's corruption, which is inevitable. Because you've got 400 people, you know who they are. Everyone can shower them with gifts and money and influence. That will have some impact on them. It is easily done to corrupt them.
"The other problem is ignorance. Part of that is related to corruption, the media is a little bit corrupt. There's a lot of ad money that's pouring in and people aren't paying attention and they're disillusioned."
This is a diagnosis that others share.
"The general thinking is if people were just smarter, if they were just more engaged or whatever the problem would be solved. But that doesn't seem to be happening," he said.
What is happening is could rewrite all the rules, and may expand far beyond the kinds of campaigns we see today. Just what the future may look like, and the undercurrents the political spectrum faces in our current embattled discourse faces will be the subject of the second part of our interview.
An earlier version of this story failed to recognize lead designer Jesse Haff as one of the co-founders of NationBuilder. Given the fact that we interviewed Mr. Haff as part of our research on the company, we especially regret this error and have corrected it.