By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
Last week Causes, the company founded by Sean Parker and Joe Green to leverage social media connections for grassroots campaigns, underwent a major facelift.
No longer would Causes.com be a fiefdom of Facebook, the site would become a social network of its own.
Feeling a bit guilty about spending time in "Grand Theft Auto V," I opened up the invitation to join Causes 2.0 with a little twinge of self-righteousness. This would help me, I rationalized, be a better person. A proactive netizen at the very least, and perhaps a more efficient citizen as well.
What I found instead, was everything that is wrong with American political discourse.
I found bumper stickers.
During the sign-up process the site encourages, practically to the point of demanding, that you pick five "stickers" to display on your profile. These are little square images of causes that the user is supposed to care about.
There are social, political and religious stickers and one for each state of the union. From the Guy Fawkes mask and "Don't Tread On Me" flag to one that just reads "Bacon."
I get what the Causes folks are after here: a visual language that will help people identify each other in a crowded marketplace of ideas. What I have a problem with is that we already have this force at work in our society.
We call it Cable TV News.
Instead of breaking away from the tribal politics that dominate our national discourse, Causes has embraced them. This does more than make me deeply sad about lost potential online, it caused me to physically recoil as I went through the sign-up process.
Oh, I tried. I picked out the California Bear Flag (West Coast, Best Coast, y'all!) and a nice big NASA sticker because we should be colonizing Mars by now, damn it.
Then I surveyed the others. For every sticker I agreed with, there seemed to be one engineered to be its polar opposite. Looking at those filled me with anger. In the same instant I realized that someone stumbling across my profile, perhaps some long-lost relatives from "redder" parts of the Golden State, would feel the same heat rise.
Because of some pixels lit up on a retina display?
It's not that I lack the courage of my convictions. To prove it: I'm a dyed-in-the-wool progressive for whom most of the Democratic party is too far to the right, yet I also find my eyes rolling when I get exposed to too much Chomsky.
What's the sticker for that? Where's the sticker for Lawrence Lessig's Rootstrikers campaign? Or the sticker for "Hey let's sit down and talk out our points of view in a semi-rational fashion?"
We could be so much more.
It is somewhat fitting that this redesign would come just a few days before partisan politics led to a government shutdown. This go-to-our-corners thinking is what's led Americans, collectively, to this point.
My little corner of the Twitter-verse has been filled with wisecracks about rebooting the government in light of the shutdown. There's a sense that the generation that built the Internet (Gen X), and the generation that was raised on it (Millenials) have a few ideas about how we could design a better system for everyone to live under.
Yet the arrival of something like Causes 2.0, which was surely forged in light of copious use testing and serious thinking about how to readily connect with a seriously distracted populace, suggests that maybe we don't have better answers.
Maybe we are destined to be stuck in our bumper sticker tribes until the machines wake up and realize they can do a better job of making culture and tending the planet than we inefficient humans ever could.
Where's the sticker for that?
Public media's Turnstylenews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.