In the first part of our interview, we introduced you to Jim Gilliam, CEO and co-founder of NationBuilder. The service is, in brief, an off-the-shelf solution for those who want to conduct political and social activism campaigns. Some people even use it to manage their fan bases.
Gilliam and his co-founders Jesse Haff and Joe Green created the service to help people organize their own communities. As Gilliam said in the first part of our interview, he sees the primary political divide in our country not as one of “left vs. right. The divide is the people vs. the powerful.” This is something that Gilliam sees as not standing for long in an age of instantaneous, ubiquitous communication.
“The internet will reset all of that,” said Gilliam. “There’s no question it has to, because the internet has this really difficult relationship with power. I have deep emotional issues with power, and I believe that the way to deal with it is to give it to everybody. The biggest way to destroy it is that everybody has it. So build tools so that you can build your power base. and everybody wants that. That’s the currency of 21st century, it’s less all the money you have and it’s more how big your nation is.”
On the national political scene that narrative has been playing out in the GOP nomination contest as Rick Santorum has managed to best Mitt Romney in some states despite the Romney campaign’s huge cash advantage. Yet the implications of a level playing field between the people and the powerful are far wider than just the possibility of upstart nominees and third party candidates.
As a culture we are still grappling with the changes that the internet has brought. The entertainment industry, for example, is still struggling to understand a world where the possibility of instantaneous, ubiquitous distribution creates an expectation for it. It would be profoundly naive to think that the connected world of culture and commerce we have now is not going to continue to evolve. Why should our political systems be any different? I asked Gilliam what he saw on the horizon.
“My feeling is that the future of politics doesn’t have any elections in it. Will that happen? No. Is that what should happen? Yes. Let’s just be clear about that because they’re different things. I always like to look at a problem and say: if you were designing this not for where we’re currently at, but for what would be the ideal situation because of the internet? This is the kind of thing that not enough people understand- a lot of systems have not been designed to fully take advantage of it.”
“No elections” runs against the grain of the way we currently think of democracy. Yet our own system already contains the framework of what Gilliam sees as a better, more participatory solution that addresses the issues of corruption and ignorance that he sees as plaguing our current democracy.
“Get rid of elections and model the legislative process more like the judicial process. Where issues are brought before a jury, but you have two opposing councils. We’ve got tons of lawyers in this country, so we’ve got plenty of people who can do this, and the jury might be twelve people or it might be a thousand people. Whatever number it is that kind of makes it work. And then you solve the corruption issue because you have no idea who these people are going to be. You get rid of the ignorance problem because you’re actually forced to hear all sides of an issue, and it is true representative democracy done in the internet age.”
The idea of a jury instead of an elected deliberative body struck me as strange initially. Who would make up the juries? Could random selection create a truly representative democracy? Would it be the best people? Whoever was available? Gilliam posits that there would be some form of jury selection process, as there is now, and that this kind of system would actually be more representative.
“Here’s the reality we’re in right now: it’s self-selective who [votes], right? It’s based upon who can get manipulated the most by one side or who has time or who is rich enough that they can take off work or all sorts of things are factoring in that aren’t representative of all of the actual people in that area. There’s no doubt that the system would not be perfect in the same way that the judicial system is not perfect; but considering how completely and utterly broken the current thing is, I’d argue that it’s dramatically better, and it’s fundamentally keeping with the concepts of the founders created this country.”
Like Gilliam said, he sees this as something that should happen but probably will not come to pass. For today there is the explosion of organizing of real world political and social action that is happening online, whether it is the Occupy Wall Street movement or the galvanization of grief into a national campaign for justice for in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
“I think that if everybody knows how to organize and it becomes so baked into the culture it becomes transformative. Because people will stop asking folks to do stuff. They’ll stop asking politicians, they’ll be like: we can just fix this ourselves.”
The system that Gilliam and company have built with NationBuilder is staggering in its depth. The platform brings together just about every tool a organizer could want: petitions, a social media dashboard, access to voter rolls, donation acceptance, and supporter profiling that helps an organizer identify the most active members of their community. This is not a tool for those with a casual interest in organizing, and the pricing reflects that. NationBuilder isn’t free. It is not destined to become an ad-funded communications platform like Blogger, WordPress and Tumblr before it. Yet the team is keeping the price reasonable enough that a serious minded organizer won’t be put off.
As the Internet matures, a spectrum appears for tools that bridge the divide between free services like blogging platforms, Facebook and Twitter, and the custom made systems run by professional campaigns and advertisers. Companies like Blue State Digital and Topspin already have healthy client lists running these kinds of services for big campaigns and artists who want to market directly to their fans.
Yet the glory of the internet is the eternal march towards democratization. The language of the internet isn’t HTML— it is interpersonal: peer-to-peer discussions that multiply their importance through network effects. Jim Gilliam and his team get this, and are building tools that can help anyone pool the distributed power of human connectivity into a force for change.