Jim Gilliam, 1977-2018

The world of tech and politics lost one of its giants Friday when Jim Gilliam, the founder of the organizing platform NationBuilder, passed away after a long illness and many battles with cancer.

Jim was probably best known for a talk he gave in 2011 at Personal Democracy Forum, which he titled “The Internet is My Religion.” In it, he described growing up as a born-again Christian, while also discovering the emerging world of the internet, and then attending Jerry Falwell University, where he found his niche as one of the college’s computer geeks—even fixing Rev. Falwell’s computer. Then, while just 18, Jim was struck with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and his mother was also diagnosed with cancer. Her death shattered his world, and as he described in his talk, he lost his faith as well. He threw himself into tech, but then had to battle leukemia, undergoing a full bone marrow transplant. Despite these challenges, Jim was already a rising star in the industry, doing a critical stint at Lycos, an early search engine, and then being asked to be the CTO of Business.com. 

After 9/11 the activist in Jim awoke, and from 2003-2006, he worked closely with Robert Greenwald, the founder of Brave New Films, helping him produce and distribute a series of documentaries critical of the Bush administration, including Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War. It was rare then for someone with Jim’s tech genius to work at a political organization, and he built critical systems for Brave New Films, cataloging reams of data about the war, and then figuring out how to log untold hours of Fox News video for Greenwald’s documentary and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.

In the summer of 2005 Jim discovered that he needed a double-lung transplant because the radiation that he had been treated with earlier had irreparably scarred his lungs. At first, no hospital would take him, because his likelihood of survival was so low. But not only did his family rally to his side, Jim’s internet friends and allies also took up his cause, and two years later Jim got his new set of lungs. As he wrote in his memoir:

Lying on the table in the center of a highly regimented whirlwind, I found myself strangely at peace….Gone was any fear of the surgery’s outcome. There was only one thing I was aware of: the countless people who had gotten me to this moment. The friends who’d just been crowded around my hospital bed; the people who had emailed UCLA on my behalf; Maggie [his step-mom], who’d never stopped fighting for me; all the people who were blogging and advocating for me; and the nurses and surgeons, in whose hands I was placing my life….And that’s when I truly found God. God wasn’t up in some mythical heaven. God was right there, talking to me, touching me, helping me—and blogging furiously in the waiting room. God is just what happens when humanity is connected. And it was only by the grace of God—their grace—that I might be saved. [Emphasis added]

That is why Jim told us, from the stage of NYU’s Skirball Hall that June morning, why the Internet was his religion. He tells his whole story in spell-binding detail in his book of the same name, which he came back to PDF to launch in 2015 (and which is available for free online). “Each one of us is a creator, and together we are The Creator,” he said. And Jim didn’t have any illusions about the negative potential of technology. “If God is what happens when humanity is connected, sometimes God is an asshole,” he reminded us in that 2015 talk. We have to decide what kind of God we want to be.

Like many of us, Jim was inspired by the potential of the Internet to not only open up the political process to outsider campaigns, but to also improve the relationship between elected representatives and the public. In late 2008, he launched White House 2, an effort at crowdsourcing participation that he hoped would address the problems facing open collaboration platforms. The source code he wrote for that then became the basis for his masterwork, NationBuilder. After a year and half of testing and development, he launched it using $250,000 of his own money in April 2011.

Jim believed fiercely in democracy. In notes he sent me for a PDF panel discussion on White House 2 (which he later wrote up here), he argued that enabling large numbers of ordinary people to participate more fully in governance was the essence of democracy. Back then, he was trying to push back on more establishment types who saw President Obama’s early experiments with taking questions voted up by Internet users as something pointless, as proved by the “fact” that  advocates of marijuana legalization always won those contest. Jim wrote:

The fact that questions related to marijuana have risen to the top of Obama’s question platform has been used to disparage online efforts. Much of the dialogue has been about how to prevent this “gaming” of the system. Well, it turns out people have been gaming the system for years. What do lobbyists do? Game the system. Pundits throwing around talking points on TV?  Gaming the system. What about corporate funded ad campaigns? Game the system. 

There’s a myth that the marijuana legalization movement is driven by a large top down organization. It’s not. It’s much more like the Ron Paul movement. They’ve self organized anywhere the internet lets them, like Digg, Reddit, and Twitter, and have become enormously effective as a result. They are connected by social media, not via a command and control organization structure. What’s happened is that average people have figured out how to “game” the system by self-organizing online… and you know what that’s called? DEMOCRACY.

That was Jim’s philosophy in a nutshell, and the reason he threw his heart and soul into NationBuilder. After Jim’s 2011 talk at PDF, and with NationBuilder’s user base growing rapidly, Jim’s vision and passion attracted the backing of major investors like Andreessen Horowitz and the company took off. From the beginning NationBuilder was an open platform for any leader seeking to organize a constituency, but some progressive activists attacked Jim harshly when NationBuilder starting actively inking deals with conservative organizations and Republican party committees. Those complaints broke into the open in 2012 but Jim never wavered in his commitment to making it possible for everyone—including people he didn’t personally agree with—to organize themselves more effectively in order to be heard. The fact that the Donald Trump 2016 campaign used NationBuilder was a point of pride to him, not of shame.

Like many alpha coders, Jim had more projects than time—consider Act.ly, a tool he built in 2009 that merged petitions with Twitter, and TweetProgress, a directory of progressives on Twitter that he built with Tracy Viselli, Jon Pincus and Gina Cooper in order to match the “Top Conservatives on Twitter” network. In early 2016, NationBuilder launched RunforOffice.org, seeking to help ignite a new wave of local candidates for the more than 500,000 elected offices across the US. On its launch Jim wrote, “You don’t need permission from the political establishment any more, and you don’t even need a lot of money. What you need is a whole lot of courage and hard work, which is exactly the kind of leadership we need. This election, don’t just get mad, get elected.”

The last time I saw Jim in person, he had made a special trip to New York in order join us at the launch party for Civic Hall, in January of 2015, where we were honored to include him among many notable speakers. (Here is a previously unreleased clip of Jim’s brief remarks.) I can only hope that we can live up to the ideals he expressed for us that evening.

Jim always knew he was living on borrowed time. Speaking at PDF in 2011, he talked about how it took the DNA of three people—his own, the person whose lungs gave him air, and the person whose bone marrow made the blood in his veins—to make one functioning human, and he enshrined that thought in his personal email domain, 3dna.us. A year ago, when a respiratory infection set off a new round of challenges with his lungs and kidneys, he handed the reins of NationBuilder to his longtime collaborator and cofounder Lea Endres. In his last year, he fought hard to face down cancer one more time, but ultimately died, at peace, last Friday. He was 41.

Go here to add your voice to Jim’s online memorial page.