The Next Wave in Social Networks: Political Expression

This is a piece I contributed to TechCrunch in February 2011 and I mention Votizen, a startup where I am now, as of late July 2011, an advisor to the company.

People always say things change fast in Silicon Valley. Here, and in other entrepreneurial communities around our country, ideas collide, companies form, money is injected, talent is allocated, and the pace of innovation churns. Entrepreneurship is so accessible, the best talent flock here to found companies like Google. Today, it’s tougher for those foreign entrepreneurs to get here in the first place, which has given rise to the Startup Visa movement, a specific policy within Startup America. These are necessary moves our country needs to make to retain the international talent we train and to cultivate more ecosystems to build the next Google.

While we try to slowly fix our domestic policies, the world is less patient. Mobile social technologies have nudged citizens into the streets in of Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Algeria, Bahrain, and now Libya. There’s no denying one huge influence in these movements: social networks. Social networks did not cause these revolts, but they greased the wheels. In Egypt, a Facebook fan page acted as the stone while it’s citizens banded together as a flint. The result was a spark. And, that spark was fanned by Twitter, a drum of kerosene so inflammable that Google, Twitter, and SayNow teamed up to enable Egyptian citizens to communicate outside national borders by creating mobile networks where phone calls could translate into tweets.

All of this activity got me thinking about what will be the next phase in the social networking revolution, what will reach mass consumer scale, be global, and generate real social and financial impact. There’s perhaps no greater market to disrupt. The fast-moving nature of politics today, whether in “mature” markets such as America or “new markets” such as in Egypt, have paved the way for individuals to express themselves and their interests in a political context. Governments and elected officials may ultimately have no choice but to monitor and cater to these activities. This could be the start of the next mass consumer trend, political expression and organization via social networks directly to elected government officials.

Where Facebook connects friends around brands and causes, and where tweets amplify information in real-time, what happens after elections, or after governments are toppled? If citizens inherently want to express their preferences within a democratic republic, how will those interests be best organized, prioritized, and executed? And, who will be held accountable? These tools are currently effective at rallying citizens around an election or protest. But, what about the act of governing? The reality is that citizens often lose interest, and keeping citizen engagement high after an election (or regime change) into the nitty-gritty of actual lawmaking is not easy. Could social networking tools be built to motivate and engage citizens to keep their interests burning bright during the act of governing?

One company attacking this problem is based in Silicon Valley: Votizen. I don’t know much about them (stealth), other than Jason Kincaid’s profile last year. It’s clear the team’s background isstellar, the investors are some of the most experienced, and it’s timing could be great. On Quora, co-founder Jason Putorti writes: “We’re currently building a product that will fundamentally alter civic participation, and the balance of power in our democracy. $8B is being spent on political influence, much of it on television, it’s massively inefficient and this market will definitely change in the next 10 years…our tools allow voting citizens, votizens, to be recognized and heard by elected officials without resorting to shouting, or extremes.” The team is building a solution for the U.S. market, but that also signals opportunities for entrepreneurs in other lands to pick up on the trend and design systems for their own countries. My belief is that once regimes change or loosen their grip, citizens must continue to push, to take up the equally hard work of self-expression and government, and that this activity is best organized online.

Relatively speaking, we have things pretty good in the U.S., so good in fact that we all don’t vote(~50%+ only in Presidential races), and when we do, we sort candidates through primaries that are held during inconvenient hours and cater to party extremes. The process produces a showdown where candidates are nudged toward the center, in exchange for modifying campaign promises. And, lots of individual and corporate money trades hands. Politicians use Facebook and Twitter to rally voters to the booths, but what happens after the election? We all know the reality. Elected officials have to calculate their re-election prospects, looking over their shoulders every two, four, or six years, and end up having little choice but to earmark originally well-intentioned bills in order to make sure they bring home some bacon.

This is the pork-filled sausage-making of American politics. It’s easy for us to lay blame on them, but it may also be that we are outsourcing too many of our core interests to public officials who carry very different incentives for actually making sure our interests are met. We may hope our interests are taken into consideration, but hope only goes so far. Critics rightly ask for accountability, but changing horses every furlong may sacrifice the short-term for the future.

Most citizens in the Middle East do not have these luxuries we take for granted. For them, nations like GMail, Facebook, and Twitter provide that place, a common platform which helps them tap, refine, and express an assortment of pent-up desires, and as we have seen, generate tremendous kinetic energy most levees cannot withstand. I know Votizen is still building product for the U.S. political market, but I would wager if it was ready today and tuned globally, millions would register, interact, and make their voice heard.

It may be that entrepreneurs elsewhere in the world are busy working away to provide a solution, either for the world or their country. If you know of tech startups attacking this problem using a social layer, please let me know. Here in America, entrepreneurs are trying to use various technologies to improve fundraising, advertising, election security, fraud, voter turnout, and post-mortem analysis. Any online social activity which can educate, connect, motivate, and encourage voters to even turn up on election days is a huge victory. Beyond that, the amount of money that currently goes into campaigns, especially the American presidential races, is an exciting and lucrative industry to disrupt, all by anchoring a product within the notion that people are growing more and more comfortable sharing their views.

I don’t mean to suggest this will happen smoothly or quickly. Social layers on top of political interests may tease out voter preferences. Some voters may be willing to give up a bit of eminent domain in exchange for the chance at high-speed rail. Some may be more willing to pay taxes dutifully if they were assured the size of government programs would be cut down. A social network geared toward these impulses could help elected officials figure out exactly “who” wants “what” and how badly. Numbers and identity matter here. Elected governments should have an interest in knowing exactly what its electorate wants. The more they deliver, the greater likelihood they’ll stay in power. The other side of the bargain is that citizens are going to have to accept the reality that not all of their personal interests will be met. That is the risk citizens take with this kind of network change, but without taking a risk, voters may never get the change they want.

One can say some of this tension has been embodied within the Startup Visa controversy. It took a committed, nimble team of well-known entrepreneurs and investors years and hard work to wedge key visa provisions into a forthcoming law. Critics wonder if it will be enough. Who knows? A social channel on top of this, beyond fan pages and 140 characters, could harness citizen momentum after the euphoria of elections and carry it into the realities of lawmaking, and more importantly, to spread the bulk of this hard work across the backs of more than just a few committed citizens.

Personally, I am grateful for those who have fought for these reforms, and while there are always criticisms to new laws, I find it most interesting to see how entrepreneurs are responding. I am rooting for the entrepreneurs who want to bring online social tools to politics, both here and abroad. We need politics-specific social networks to help increase engagement around local, state, and national elections, but also during the legislative process, to keep the heat on politicians. At the same time, citizens have to work to apply the heat, or else they will get the governments they deserve. My hope is that entrepreneurs ride this awesome, evolving wave of social networking into its next phase. It is a massive wave, and as the global events of the past month have demonstrated, it is not yet anywhere near shore.