Feb 212011

political expression

People always say things change fast in Silicon Valley. Here, and in other entrepreneurial communities around our country, ideas collide, companies form, money is injected, talent is allocated, and the pace of innovation churns.

Entrepreneurship is so accessible, the best talent flock here to found companies like Google. Today, it’s tougher for those foreign entrepreneurs to get here in the first place, which has given rise to the Startup Visa movement, a specific policy within Startup America. These are necessary moves our country needs to make to retain the international talent we train and to cultivate more ecosystems to build the next Google.

While we try to slowly fix our domestic policies, the world is less patient. Mobile social technologies have nudged citizens into the streets in of Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Algeria, Bahrain, and now Libya. There’s no denying one huge influence in these movements: social networks. Social networks did not cause these revolts, but they greased the wheels. In Egypt, aFacebook fan page acted as the stone while it’s citizens banded together as a flint. The result was a spark. And, that spark was fanned by Twitter, a drum of kerosene so inflammable that Google, Twitter, and SayNow teamed up to enable Egyptian citizens to communicate outside national borders by creating mobile networks where phone calls could translate into tweets.

All of this activity got me thinking about what will be the next phase in the social networking revolution, what will reach mass consumer scale, be global, and generate real social and financial impact. There’s perhaps no greater market to disrupt. The fast-moving nature of politics today, whether in “mature” markets such as America or “new markets” such as in Egypt, have paved the way for individuals to express themselves and their interests in a political context. Governments and elected officials may ultimately have no choice but to monitor and cater to these activities. This could be the start of the next mass consumer trend, political expression and organization via social networks directly to elected government officials.

Where Facebook connects friends around brands and causes, and where tweets amplify information in real-time, what happens after elections, or after governments are toppled? If citizens inherently want to express their preferences within a democratic republic, how will those interests be best organized, prioritized, and executed? And, who will be held accountable? These tools are currently effective at rallying citizens around an election or protest. But, what about the act of governing? The reality is that citizens often lose interest, and keeping citizen engagement high after an election (or regime change) into the nitty-gritty of actual lawmaking is not easy. Could social networking tools be built to motivate and engage citizens to keep their interests burning bright during the act of governing?

One company attacking this problem is based in Silicon Valley: Votizen. I don’t know much about them (stealth), other than Jason Kincaid’s profile last year. It’s clear the team’s background is stellar, the investors are some of the most experienced, and it’s timing could be great. On Quora, co-founder Jason Putorti writes: “We’re currently building a product that will fundamentally alter civic participation, and the balance of power in our democracy. $8B is being spent on political influence, much of it on television, it’s massively inefficient and this market will definitely change in the next 10 years…our tools allow voting citizens, votizens, to be recognized and heard by elected officials without resorting to shouting, or extremes.” The team is building a solution for the U.S. market, but that also signals opportunities for entrepreneurs in other lands to pick up on the trend and design systems for their own countries. My belief is that once regimes change or loosen their grip, citizens must continue to push, to take up the equally hard work of self-expression and government, and that this activity is best organized online.

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