The recent political conventions underscored a few disconcerting trends. Our political leadership is not only out of touch with reality but also tends to distort the truth. How can social-media-based innovations address these challenges?
Given that social media excel at connecting people with society’s leaders, there is no question social entrepreneurs can play a major role in the country’s future. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted in his company’s S-1 IPO filing that he viewed Facebook as a tool that could “bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people.”
While Zuckerberg believes that social media can more bring accountability to the political process and offer solutions to some of our biggest problems, how is this vision being realized? A number of startups are approaching the social engagement process in different ways.
Founded in 2006 by two Stanford University undergrads, Change.org aims to overcome microcosmic challenges. The company lets citizens create online petitions. Its most famous win was “forcing” Bank of America to rescind its planned monthly $5 banking fee, a petition started by a 22-year-old nanny Molly Katchpole.
Demonstrating the budding interest in online activism, often dubbed “clicktivism,” Change.org has signed up 17 million members and is adding 2-3 million clicktivists each month, according to Change.org Communications Manager Charlotte Hill.
In August, Change.org helped three high-school students succeed: in getting a woman, CNN’s Candy Crowley, to moderate the presidential debates, something that hadn’t occurred since 1992. (Look here for other Change.org victories
Hill tells me that Change.org generates revenue by accepting advertisements from non-profits, basically “sponsored petitions.” The formula may be working because the company already has grown to 150 employees.
POPVOX was born to address the problem of too much information. Founder and CEO Marci Harris worked as a legislative assistant in Washington and discovered that congressional staffers were drowning in too much noise, so the idea to create an online sentiment platform was born.
POPVOX automates the process of constituent communications with their political representatives. The online platform makes it easy for citizens to follow proposed legislation and express support or opposition, which is then sent with a personalized note to involved representatives.
Harris tells me that POPVOX relies on a freemium model. Politicians are welcome to place a free widget on their site but if they need analytics, the company is more than happy to oblige for a monthly subscription fee.
POPVOX users are not required to be citizens or even registered voters. So users can keep civic logins separate from their Facebook or Twitter login. This feature lets members rely on anonymous screen names yet communicate with Congress using their real name.
Votizen takes a different approach. It spent a lot of money and time digitizing voter registration records for 200 million Americans. It took two years to capture the data, which was supplied by local registrars on floppy disks, magnetic tape and even spreadsheets.
The resulting 1TB database was used to create a social-media-driven service that lets members discover who their social media connections like - or to find like-minded individuals. Votizen has raised $2.25 million from the likes of Napster co-founder Sean Parker and angel investor Ron Conway in addition to Twitter celebrity Ashton Kutcher.
Votizen believes politicians and activists will pay to reach its members, selectable by affinity or geography. The service says it has so far attracted 1,549,231 members. Votizen co-founder and CEO David Binetti says the goal of the service is to reduce the role of money in politics by making “the size of a person’s network more important than the size of their wallet.”
Clearly, social entrepreneurs have heeded the call to help reshape America’s political landscape, whether through clicktivism and heightened civic or voter engagement. I plan to look at the other challenge, realtime transparency and fact-checking, in an upcoming post.
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