When it Comes to Fixing Politics, Tech Needs a Reality-Check

A few months after the 2016 election, in a sterile conference facility in San Francisco, two prominent CEOs squared off presenting opposing visions of how technology could heal what ails Democrats. The first speaker envisioned a world where technology would radically scale the number of people who engage in politics. He proposed building tech to let everyday Americans spend “5 minutes and $5” electing Democrats, dramatically improving their chances through grassroots activation. The second CEO’s call to action couldn’t have been more different. “Want to make a difference?” he asked. Move to Florida and dedicate the rest of your life to this work. Donate to candidates and committees. But don’t waste your time and money thinking that you’re going to disrupt politics. That was his advice.

We witnessed this exchange first-hand, and it prompted us to weigh in on this debate because we don’t believe that tech will disrupt politics, but we do know it can make a meaningful difference without all of us moving to swing states to knock on doors.

Each of us has worked at the intersection of technology and politics for many years—Julie as an investor, Josh as a technologist, and Cheryl as a startup founder. We’ve seen the moments where new technology has had a transformational effect on political campaigning and activism, and also times where generously-funded projects that purport to change everything simply fizzle out.

Over the past few months we’ve been interviewing leaders in tech and politics and exploring questions such as how can the tech community use its talents and money to fight against Trump? How should these efforts relate to party institutions? How much can the tech industry “disrupt” politics as we know it, and should it even try?

And here’s where we’ve come out: We believe that while the intentions have been good, and the debate spirited, the tech industry is failing to use its skills and resources to build new political power in the Trump era.

The current moment is full of opportunity, but also precarious. The months since Trump’s inauguration have given birth to one of the most energetic protest movements of our generation as the recent election results in Virginia demonstrated. Organizations that didn’t exist before November 9 now have a real presence in the progressive space, and many have been growing faster than any Silicon-Valley “unicorns.” Americans of all backgrounds, and not just committed Democrats, have taken a stand against Trump’s administration and policies.

On the hand, the Republican victory has humbled many in the campaigning world, forcing us to consider how Trump built a technological and analytical advantage.

We believe that the technology sector can have a critical impact on the 2018 midterms, the 2020 presidential election and beyond, but in order to see that impact we must focus on the right solutions. We have to recognize that politics isn’t just another domain waiting for Silicon Valley-style disruption. We have to provide resources and tools for the newly mobilized. We have to understand the nuts and bolts of campaigns and organizing.

In short, we can’t get caught in Silicon Valley’s techno-utopianism or Washington, D.C.’s suspicion of outsiders.

Many new tools fail because technologists grossly underestimate how difficult the political technology market is

The cyclical nature of politics means that products developed during campaigns are often thrown away after an election cycle. Furthermore, adoption of technology in the political space isn’t a meritocracy; what technology can be used is often based on the whims of consultants, party committees and politicians in Washington, D.C. and state capitals across the country.

On top of that, the people making purchasing decisions have a very low tolerance for risk (there are no election do-overs!), and are incredibly pressed for time. Therefore it’s often easier to go for what’s worked in the past rather than try something new that might fail, and waste your campaigns time, break your database, or frustrate volunteers.

Despite these challenges, there are some examples of political technology products that have been successful—some were bootstrapped and others were venture funded. For example, Hustle, a peer-to-peer text messaging platform that recently raised an $8M round of capital, started as a tool for campaigns and is now quickly expanding into other markets.

Screenshot of Hustle’s website

In this moment of incredible civic engagement and activism, we see three promising areas for innovation where technology can help move the needle: social-media powered storytelling; tools for distributed movements; and bringing campaigns into the 21st century.

Social media-powered storytelling and storytellers

We need to develop better messages, find new messengers, and reach new audiences.

The Trump campaign spent the entire election message testing one-liners during rallies, and then amplifying the ones that resonated the most. This allowed his campaign to identify a set of messages that worked incredibly well with a constituency that the political establishment had previously overlooked.

We need to replicate and enhance this approach, and then make it accessible to a broad set of progressive campaigns.

Instead of using focus groups to identify potential messages, campaigns should be able to see what conversations are emerging online, who those conversations are resonating with, and then run with those. Companies like Attentive.ly—which Cheryl co-founded—and Crowdtangle have started to pave the way, but more is needed.

In addition to finding messages that resonate with people who already lean towards your cause, we should also be thinking about reaching audiences that are currently segregated in their own social media bubbles. As we all know, the algorithms that dictate how content spreads online reinforce this segregation. We see potential in experiments that find content that can travel to new audiences, and perhaps persuade them to change their perspectives. An example of this is Josh’s new startup HOPE, a “personal political advisor” which explains news headlines and focuses its audience on effective actions to take.

It’s also critical to find and amplify new messengers for these messages. A growing share of content is created by independent content creators who have millions of online followers, whether on YouTube, Facebook, or SnapChat. Today, these creators are sharing beauty tips, commenting on video games, or staging rap battles with historical characters.

We see tremendous potential for these mediums to help identify and amplify creators telling stories that change people’s hearts and minds in more creative, interactive, and compelling ways. Some voices already exist, like Tyler Oakley, Issa Rae, Marina Watanabe, and Trae Crowder but they need to be better connected, better resourced, and their reach needs to be amplified. There’s space for new kinds of production companies that can help produce, promote, and distribute this new content.

We realize that doubling down on social media may seem like a fool’s errand at a time when social seems to be fracturing our attention spans, fragmenting audiences into little bubbles and polarizing our conversations. We hope this new generation of creators will build better media businesses that don’t just rely on Facebook and YouTube for distribution and on advertising for revenue.

Distributed and networked movements

We have entered a new era for building movements—more people are willing to take action, and they are willing to do more than sign petitions online. It has been incredible to see what volunteer-led groups have been able to accomplish since November 9.

The Women’s March

The Women’s March was the largest protest in U.S. history. In just 3 months, using mostly free and low-cost tools like Facebook, Slack, and ActionNetwork, organizers were able to bring out millions of people to hundreds of rallies around the country.

Since then, everyday citizens have been able to research congressional districts using SwingLeft, compile townhall information with Town Hall Project, and build websites thanks to RagTag. Many are also leading teams of other volunteers through groups like Pantsuit Nation and Indivisible. Most recently, the election results in Virginia have demonstrated the impact and staying power of these groups.

But, distributed across the country, with very little hierarchy and a lot of autonomy, we’re also beginning to see the limits of what teams of volunteers can do. Currently, many of these volunteers use free tools like Slack and Google Docs for internal coordination and decision making, and Facebook and email for external communication. But many groups are quickly approaching the limits of what can be done using these tools—emails are getting lost in people’s overflowing inboxes, institutional memory gets buried deep in Slack channels, and decision-making involving large groups in such contexts is increasingly challenging.

We need new tools to help volunteers coordinate with each other, with other groups and with candidates, as well as tools for conversations, decision-making, training, and onboarding. We are encouraged by tools such as Loomio, Amplify and Affinity, but more are needed. With better tools, volunteers will run campaigns that are distributed, bottom-up, innovative, and nimble, both online and in real life.

21st century campaigns

The current technology and data solutions for campaigns are too complicated, segmented, and expensive to be effective. It’s clear to everyone that we need to upgrade political campaigning technology.

Campaigns are still highly dependent on siloed consultants—the direct mail vendor is typically different from the digital vendor and the TV ad vendor. This is incredibly inefficient. In addition, each individual campaign shouldn’t need to pay expensive data scientists to do their targeting; every campaign should be able to leverage the power of centralized technology to easily and intelligently craft target universes. RevUp and WealthEngine are already doing this for sales and fundraising. We need something similar for voters, too.

Even simple tools like distributed phone banking programs could be improved—campaigns are still reliant on off-the-shelf programs that fail to live up to expectations.

Phone banking needs an upgrade (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

There’s also an important need to help campaign managers quickly identify the best set of tools for them. It’s shockingly hard for campaigns to go from zero to sixty. Candidates are given a mishmash of different tools, and almost nowhere in the country are candidates immediately handed the tools they need to successfully compete.

This is the area where we’re seeing the most innovation right now. New companies and organizations like GroundGame, The Tuesday Company, and VoterCircle are building out products as we speak and we’re excited about the potential for better and cheaper tools. This is also an opportunity area that Raffi Krikorian, the new CTO of the DNC, has taken head-on and we’re looking forward to seeing the party help campaigns small and large find the right tools.

Building the right tool isn’t enough, we need to build it in the right way

Finally, would-be founders, and the tech industry as a whole, shouldn’t let the subject matter of politics and civic engagement distract us from some core business principles that have proved essential to any successful project:

Build, measure, learn

We need to test our assumptions rigorously and make changes based on user behavior rather than our own preferences and vision.

Pivot and pivot again

We need to apply the spirit of hacking to the problem of politics in a new century. This is the time for bold moves that build momentum. If the people we’re reaching are moving towards solutions we didn’t think about, let’s go with them.

Make decisions quickly

We need to remember not to shovel good money after bad if it’s clear the original concept isn’t creating real impact.

Be humble

We need to give ourselves a reality check: If these problems were easy to solve, someone would have done it already.

An experimental, iterative approach that focuses on user-centered design at its core is a great way to start any company, including one that is focused on politics and civic engagement.

The tech sector has an important role to play in bringing the political sector into the modern world; a system originally built for 18th century people and problems definitely needs new 21st century firmware! And we don’t have to choose between quixotic efforts to completely reinvent political participation and giving up on tech entirely. That said, please don’t waste your time and money building big platforms that will disrupt everything—many have already tried and failed. Instead, learn from past experiences, and build the tools that campaigns, content creators, and activists desperately need. And, of course, get ready to make new mistakes for all of us to learn from.