Before political campaigns were all over blogs, Meetup.com, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, there was USA.gov, cofounded by David Binetti in 2000. The site, which was the platform for the first ever webcast from the Oval Office, is now the U.S. Government’s official portal.
Binetti’s new venture is a Silicon Valley tech startup called Votizen, a social network where voters can campaign for a candidate or a cause. Users reach out primarily to friends or acquaintances, leveraging their own social networks to organize. Votizen was used heavily in last November’s San Francisco mayoral race, which resulted in the election of Ed Lee, the first Chinese-American mayor in that city’s history. With the 2012 campaign heating up, we spoke with David Binetti, Votizen’s CEO and cofounder, about the disruptive impact of technology on the political landscape and the challenges of innovating in the federal government.
FAST COMPANY: Technology is obviously playing a critical role in every part of our politics now. Tell us about how you first got started bringing the power of the web to the political world and what you have seen since.
DAVID BINETTI: In 1995, I created a website that did online campaign finance disclosure. In 2000, I created USA.gov, which is now the official portal of the federal government. Over the first decade of this century, web politics developed quite a bit. In 2008, the Obama campaign took advantage of technology in very innovative ways. Something was qualitatively different in the grassroots nature of the Obama campaign and its use of social media in particular. People were willing to share to a degree that they had not been willing to do before. Those channels allowed people to come together–voter to voter–which is a major departure from the fundamentally one-way, tight-message-control nature of the last 50 years of political campaigning. Social is completely the opposite. It’s about connecting with other people and it’s about having messages transfer organically, shift a little bit along the way, and having the people come to their own conclusions about what they want to say and what they want to share.
Although we’re living in a sharing revolution, certain aspects of politics, specifically who people are voting for, have always been treated as private. What has changed that now allows a platform like Votizen to be built on the premise of actively sharing your political views and allegiances?
I think people realize that to share is to gain. So the benefits of sharing outweigh the potential costs. Mostly it’s people saying “I’m willing to share information about myself in order to have an impact.”
Most people are willing to give up assets that are considered private as long as they are fairly compensated. A club card at the grocery store is an example of that. People are saying to the store, you can watch my purchases, but I want to get a discount. The same thing is happening here. People tell their network who they’re voting for and, as a result, they get connected to people who share their viewpoint and grow that impact for a candidate, a cause, or an issue.
Give us a picture of how Votizen works.
Votizen empowers people to take action directly with the people in their networks. The first thing people do is connect with the voters that they already are connected to in their social networks, reach out to them, and ask them to take an action on behalf of this candidate because they believe it’s important. Votizen is an open platform as opposed to a candidate distributing a call list or dictating what actions you take. In the San Francisco mayor’s race, we piloted a new technology called a “Virtual Precinct Walk.” For a lot of candidates, particularly local candidates, a precinct walk is one of the main things they and their supporters do. You walk through a neighborhood and you knock on doors for your candidate. We moved that online. Instead of walking through streets and knocking on strangers’ doors, you are going online and connecting with your friends. Ed Lee’s mayoral campaign used this tool and found many advantages. You don’t have to worry about whether or not the person is home, you don’t have worry about the weather, you can cover much more ground more rapidly. You can do it on your own time; it doesn’t have to be done on Sunday afternoon. The person who answers your social door is always the person you’re seeking. And of course you’re connecting with friends. That one-to-one connection is really important.
Political campaigns today are waged primarily offline–person-to-person and through traditional media. While online is growing, most analysts doubt it can ever have as much impact as traditional political media.
The difference between online and offline might not matter as much as those analysts think. Is it reasonable that on the presidential level, candidates can have one-to-one connections with 200 million voters? No. But think about where connectedness to voters is going to matter most: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, the swing states…mobilizing supporters’ connections to their own networks can have disproportionately valuable effects. In the Iowa Caucuses, Rick Perry got 12,557 votes. It turns out he spent $480 per vote, almost all of it on traditional media. Well, if you know two people in Iowa who you can win to voting for your candidate, you are effectively a $1,000 donor to that campaign. Given that money can be a proxy for getting votes, if people are actually able to deliver votes through their connections online that could have a huge impact on the race. In presidential politics today the money is being spent primarily on television, direct mail, and robocalls. Yet those media are losing effectiveness quite rapidly. In the future these social network channels are going to matter more and more. Ultimately it’s going to be much more about “friend-raising,” than fundraising. Candidates will still ask how do I get enough votes to win, but which channels they use to gain those votes will change, it already is changing.
Amplification was obviously key on an issue like SOPA. What is your power to amplify something perceived as a small issue and make it bigger?
Where I think Votizen is going to have the most impact is on the long tail of politics. A year and a half ago people on our site organized around cabin fees. New rules had been proposed that would raise fees on people who owned personal property on federal forest land. There are only 5,000 people who are directly affected by this issue, but they are all super connected. So one of them started a campaign and within 48 hours, 1,000 of those people had signed on and written letters to the legislators. One legislator in particular took on that issue–because it made a difference to someone in their district, and served as their advocate and so far, they have succeeded in holding off those fee hikes.
Obama talked a lot about innovation in his recent State of the Union speech and offered some promising ideas. But what are the challenges and roadblocks to innovating in government?
People working in the government are amazing, hard working, thoughtful people who want to do good. But the government, as a whole, is not in the innovation business. Individual people are not rewarded for innovation. In fact, they are frequently punished. The system is designed to be stable, so when you actually try to make change, it’s really hard. Private-public partnerships can be very valuable for innovation. These formats allow you to innovate on the private side with a path to become more public. That’s something we pioneered with FirstGov, which became USA.gov. A lot of the innovation happened on the private side when we were a private company. Eventually, it transitioned to a public platform. It took us 90 days to build USA.gov and more than three years to give it away to the government. That was largely a result of the government procurement rules. There was just no system for dealing with what was essentially a donation of services and intellectual property.
One of the concerns about the political process is the need to engage new voters and new communities. How are you seeing new groups use your platform?
In a campaign, members on our site ran in support of Startup Visa [an effort to change immigration laws, making it easier for foreign entrepreneurs living in the United States with successful businesses to stay in the country] and 80% of the people who used the system had never engaged in the political process before. What brought them in was the fact that they felt that they could actually make a difference. If you look at the SOPA debate in January, online activism made a huge difference–in fact, it made all the difference! Now people see that the actions they take can have an impact. Voters are realizing: I can make something happen. This is where the 2008 Obama campaign nailed it because they realized that by letting people take direct action in the campaign, supporters were encouraged to take more action. Freeing people up to believe that they were participating directly gave them the huge benefit of seeing themselves as involved with something greater and more important than themselves.
Note: This interview has been edited for content, clarity, and length.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08. He is also the founder & executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in early 2013.
[Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]