Why you should care
Millennials’ biggest political challenge might be whether they can make the Internet good for anything other than cat videos and one-night stands.
Dump a bucket of ice water on your head and post the video on Facebook. Or tweet a picture of yourself holding a sign reading “#BringBackOurGirls.” Or sign an online petition. Voila, you’re an instant activist!
Welcome to the much-derided world of so-called hashtag activism, or “slacktivism,” that’s become something of a calling card for the millennial generation. But now some enterprising young people are trying to change that, launching startups they hope can take our passing interests or underlying values and guide all of us — not just millennials — into more directed and, most importantly, sustained civic engagement.
The big question for these startups “is whether they can translate the ‘like’ … into something more.”
Their concepts run the gamut: from policymaking “bootcamps” to a social network dedicated to civic identities. Popvox, a Silicon Valley-based site started four years ago to help people better interact with members of Congress, is undergoing a “stem to stern” overhaul this fall, as co-founder Marci Harris describes it. Nonprofit good-government groups have been trying to up their engagement game. The Participatory Politics Foundation, which created the online clearinghouse on Congress, OpenCongress, recently launched AskThem.* It allows constituents to have Twitter conversations with elected officials — 140 characters or fewer, please.
“There’s sort of a scale of engagement, and ‘like’ ” — as in that Facebook thumbs-up — “is the first rung on the scale,” says Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center, which last year released a study on civic engagement in the digital age. The big question for these startups “is whether they can translate the ‘like’ … into something more.”
What they’re up against: human nature, a jaded public and the micro-attention spans of the 21st century.
The more complex the situation, the “less moral outrage and determination to act.”
Evanna Hu is among those who lament the way modern civic engagement hinges on “instant gratification.” People will rally for big, one-off events, like voting in the historic 2008 presidential election. They’ll voice support for very black-and-white causes, like stopping African warlord Joseph Kony. But try to sustain that attention across complicated policy battles with ups and downs and compromise and incremental victories, and you’re in much more difficult territory. Just ask the Obama administration, which has tried, and mostly failed, to keep its unprecedented grassroots game on campaign footing during the tough years of actually governing.
As one group of academics found in a recent study of the #StopKony phenomenon, simplicity is the key to virality. The more complex the situation, the “less moral outrage and determination to act,” concludes the study, by Daniel Sullivan, Mark Landau and Aaron Kay.
The 23-year-old Hu, who helped start international mobile texting company g.Maarifa, insists that her generation could be interested in delving far deeper into the policy process, in all its sausage-making glory, if it were easier to get involved. Millennials are just turned off by the barriers to entry, the old boys’ club, the Beltway insiders and all the other powers that be. So she and friend Julia Hurley, who works in international development, launched a “hackathon” to test that theory. Instead of gathering computer gurus together to develop an outside-the-box tech solution to a problem, they brought together young wonk wannabes to “hack” the policy process.
Thus was born Polithon. In the first weekend-long event in September, participants tried to tackle the Israel-Gaza crisis, learning the ins and outs of the often opaque policymaking process along the way. Hu and Hurley envision holding two more events of this kind in the coming months, focused on different issues and in different locales, and then, potentially, scaling up into a real advocacy operation on a whole range of issues participants care about. After all, the Israel-Palestine feud is not everyone’s cup of tea. And “we’re not saying all millennials should care about all the issues,” says Hu. It’s more about zeroing in on issues that matter to you and finding new ways to weigh in on them.
Coming out with a product that is all about politics is very unlikely to work.
—Matt Mahan, Brigade CEO
That’s the same philosophy that Harris, of Popvox, embraces. The aim of the rebuilt site is to “lower the barriers and increase the quality” of the dialogue between people and the officials elected to represent them, as well as among citizens who care about certain issues. Right now, most of the 400,000 registered users are people who were already engaged offline. But Popvox redux offers other enticements. The site is more interactive, for one, and it allows users some self-promotion: They can advocate for their issues and become “thought leaders.”
Brigade, too, is premised on individual passions. But the creators of the new web site and social network, launching next year, are trying to cast a net as vast as the Web. “Certainly, there will be target audiences and there will be early adopters, … but at the end of the day, we see ourselves competing with ESPN and Spotify for people’s discretionary time,” says Matt Mahan, Brigade’s CEO. The key, of course, is not to label it a politics site. “Coming out with a product that is all about politics is very unlikely to work,” concedes Mahan. “But if you dig one level deeper and you talk to people, … everybody has issues that they care about. They have things that they want to see be different, and it’s very personal for them.”
Brigade acquired Philotic Inc. – best known for its Causes app used by nonprofits to attract support on Facebook and the advocacy startup Votizen – in June, keeping much of the same Causes team. It’s funded by Napster founder and early Facebook investor Sean Parker and other Silicon Valley titans like Marc Benioff and Ron Conway (who is, full disclosure, also an OZY investor). And it has similar ambitions in terms of those companies’ reach, though it continues to hold the details and functions of the new site close to the vest.
Could all these efforts work? Do people really want to spend their time debating where to install bike lanes or how to fund public education, as Mahan and the Brigade team envision? Or for that matter, going to weekend-long policymaking exercises or tweeting at their congressional representative? Rainie, of Pew, thinks that once organizations know what their audience “likes” — literally and in social media terms — it could very well create channels to “introduce them to deeper levels of engagement.” But he cautions that the history of the Web is littered with failed efforts to turn people’s fleeting political interests into something more sustainable.
*Corrections: This article has been revised to clarify the relationship between Brigade and Causes and to correct the relationship between the Participatory Politics Foundation and OpenCongress.