Votizen, a non-partisan and non affiliated political platform whose goal is to "restore American democracy,” just released a new feature that may revolutionize the way in which politicians and their campaigns use social media.
Reporting almost 1.5 million registered voters on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, the website allows you to become a "Votizen" and discover various voting aspects within your own personal social networks - for free. Votizen allows you to find your voting friends, their voter frequency, and interestingly enough, their party registration. The company is unique in that it has worked to compile an all encompassing voter registration database to build this off of.
Pete Snyder says of the process,
“This is where campaigns are going, being able to take your digital footprints, cellphone number and personal information and overlay that with voting records and political mailing lists,” said Pete Snyder, founder and CEO of one of Votizen's backers, New Media Strategies. “You have hundreds of companies and campaigns trying to crack the code on this.”
The company, centered around consumer technology, was founded in 2010 and launched in 2011 by Jason Putorti, a past lead designer for Mint.com, David Binetti, a Web entrepreneur who helped build USA.gov, and Matt Snider, also a former employee and engineer at Mint.com. The company has been able to garner backing from Silicon Valley's finest, but a new big player, Sean Parker, Napster co-founder and Facebook’s founding president and basically one of social media's super star. Parker has apparently always believed in the influence of social media, and in particular, its influence on politics.
On the relationship between politics and social media, Parker says:
"Politics for me is the most obvious area ," said Parker. "Campaigns themselves, and all forms of special interest groups and PACs are driven by huge amounts of cash. If you're a PAC you're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to mobilize single-issue voters. Taking money out of politics with campaigns is possible through social media. Like with all of these other groups, they're spending a fortune basically for maintaining a mailing list, and that can be done basically for free using online tools. There's huge potential for disruption."
Another big funder and proponent of the potential power Votizen has on social media is ex VP, Al Gore. In this audience taken video of him and Sean Parker at the 2012 SxSW festival, the two are having an engaging discussion on the role social media plays in combating political apathy. The video primarily covers this at 3 minutes in and on.
And on direct democracy in the US:
The two figures both show their firm belief in the role of technology to empower not only citizens but the electorate, hoewever they seem disturbed by the dangers associated with social media and its vulnerability for exploitation by bureaucrats and politically inclined backers. Parker revels the idea of harnessing social media for "reducing the value of campaign dollars, resulting in the election of lesser-funded politicians."
Other celebrities are on board with the goals of Votizen, harboring funding from the likes of Ashton Kutcher and Lady Gaga and Madonna’s managers. As of recent, the company reportedly has funding of approximately 2.25 million dollars as of March this year. Its list of investors can be seen here.
And the new feature we mentioned that may revolutionize how politicians use social media? Essentially, the basis of Votizen is for users to be able to see others in their social network who are voters and enable them to support the campaigns and candidates they believe in. It facilitates outreach only from people in their own social network. In this way, campaigns are gaining votes through more authentic, grassroots promotion. Recently, Votizen released new technology that will allow (for a cost) campaigns to acquire data on their Votizen supporters and provide them with custom and personal messages to market within the user's own social network. Campaigns can attain data on which supporters are winning votes which will allow them to pinpoint what strategies they can possibly add to their campaign efforts. Purtorti says this new feature will “extract the voter IDs for the voters identified by your supporters”.
But what about those of us who want to keep our voter identities a little more conspicuous? Purtorti clarifies saying "The only way you’ll receive a message ever from Votizen, is through one of your friends, and we allow an easy way to opt-out of that completely". The company allows voters the option of being unidentifiable by filling out an opt-out form available on the website.
Before this new product was launched, co-founder Binetti said “We’re disrupting the currency of politics with ‘friendraising’ over fundraising. The goal is to make it harder for money to have an effect” with the goal of creating, “a world where the size of your network matters a lot more than the size of your checkbook.” Ironically, this is countered by the release of Votizen’s new feature. Now, Votizen is charging a “special” for campaigns to gain access to their feature; a mere $250. This is a small price to pay for the potential impact this technology can have, and the owners put faith in this, claiming they will soon increase the price. Does this price and the soon to be price spike seem contradictory to their fundamental goals?
Thoughts on how much this kind of technology will spread and at what pace is still up in the air as it will take some time for courageous campaigns to see results and for word-of-mouth to spread. The track record of the founders, although illustrious, have also seen ideas and startups that were not so successful, but in the world of technology, I guess they all can't be gems. In my opinion, the success of this kind of thing will only occur with it spreading from a more top down approach with bigger campaigns taking hold of and utilizing their already high number of followers.
That's not to say there isn't still an extremely accessible component to Votizen for smaller scale politics, as that is the exact reason why it was created. The allowance of focus on the more low profile yet nonetheless dedicated followers is exactly what this kind of technology could facilitate.
In terms of what this could mean for voters and politics, utilizing social networks in this way could be a game changer in the prominence of what many would consider the two party system we have today. It empowers not only voters but politicians and political proponents. Campaigns that cannot necessarily compete with other political campaigns often funded by the rich and the powerful are given another channel of outreach. It creates a playing field that is a bit more fair and where money doesn't play such a large factor, but social networks do. It allows politicians to streamline the process of attaining votes that can sometimes be muddled in the convenience of partisanship and holds a power to conceive “a new political currency based on voter-to-voter connections” that could potentially significantly alter politics in social media today.
*Edited after clarification from Co-founder, Votizen