The Selling of E-The People

The Selling of E-The People

2003-07-31

Bennett Voyles’ retrospective on the apolitical Nineties, and the fate of democratic electronic activism without content.

E-The People began in 1998 around a ping-pong table in a ratty SoHo loft. It had all the elements of a typical Silicon Valley saga, from overvalued stock options to prima donna programmers to radiator pipes that banged ominously in the winter - along with this novel twist: we thought we were doing something good. We were going to make it easier for people to communicate with government officials. The idea was that while you were e-mailing your congressman, we would be serving you an ad, and ultimately taking a modest fee for our part in rejuvenating the Republic.

As a business case study, there’s no point in studying E-The People. We were like a thousand other dotcoms - long on ambition and confidence, short on almost everything else. (Even calling us a business is kind of a stretch: we never even had invoices until our second year of operations!) However, seen as a kind of biopsy into the American body politic, our story begins to get more interesting.

The passion behind the outfit was a quietly audacious young Texan named Alex Sheshunoff. Alex and I had worked together previously on a city zine called New York Now, which attracted a little attention locally for its political commentary - mostly silly interactive cartoons making fun of Mayor Giuliani (my personal high point came the day his press secretary called us a “cheap and tawdry site” in the New York Post). Alex was the publisher; I was the editor. This time out, Alex asked me to be the executive producer. Since I enjoyed working for him and thought it would be more fun to try to sell democracy online than plus size women’s clothes or sporting goods, I decided to stick around.

Alex’s dream was to build a giant switchboard that would make contacting government officials as simple as finding a book on Amazon. E-The People, “America’s Interactive Town Hall.” You could search by job title, search by location, search by a menu of political issues, even your own zip code, and find the right official to e-mail your suggestion or grievance. As an afterthought, we decided to add interactive petitions, a suggestion of our 19-year-old Russian programmer. (Max was an Ayn Rand fan: his version contained one Darwinian feature we later dropped: the Bad Idea Pile, a section of the site where all the weak petitions that couldn’t get signatures would go to die of ridicule.) When we started, I thought the job was relatively simple and would take Max a few days. In fact, it took a year and a half and four or five programmers.

Then it was done, or nearly done. We had built a machine that made it possible for people anywhere to log onto our site and contact more than 140,000 local, state, and federal government officials by e-mail (we had almost everybody in there: if memory serves, even Monica Lewinsky was in the database). For officials who didn’t have e-mail, we had made a deal with an e-mail-to-fax service, that would forward the letter by fax. You could search by issue; you could search by street address and zip code. We had even gone to the trouble of matching state legislators’ districts to streets, which was a tall order, especially since so much of the country is still chronically gerrymandered, and at the time, only semi-computerized (in New York State, for example - I hope it’s changed now - voters were assigned to districts after clerks looked at maps on the wall; at least that’s what a clerk told me over the phone one day). There were bugs, especially at first, but on the whole E-The People did what we said it would do.

Now came the fun part, at least for me: selling our democracy machine. My chief idea was that the only way we could sell something new and different was if we could associate it with something old and revered. That’s how we happened to come up with the name “E-The People,” and with the idea of this service being “America’s Interactive Town Hall.” This notion led me to mulling about the sentimental associations Americans have with electoral machinery in general (this was pre-2000), and the romance of the campaign. Finally, huffing on a treadmill one day in a SoHo gym, thinking about the stories of Lyndon Johnson’s first Senate race - he crisscrossed Texas in anything that moved: cars, planes, even an early helicopter - I imagined the Grassroots Express.

My idea was to rent a bus and tour the country, whistle-stopping at the newspapers and nonprofit groups we hoped would be our clients, meeting with reporters and politicians along the way. This was 1998, remember, when for an Internet entrepreneur the only limits seemed to be set by one’s own gall. Alex liked the idea, and in just a few weeks, he tracked down a bus, hired two frighteningly gifted PR people and a platoon of telemarketers to give some advance word of the arrival of our traveling circus, and in a very short while, put the show on the road.

In spite of all the preparation, it was a surprise to me to actually find myself three months later, in Lubbock, Texas, driving past the Buddy Holly Memorial, on our way to Waco. In the parking lot of the city library we had just met three TV crews, two librarians, and a frightened social worker with Tammy Faye eyelashes. She had reason to be frightened: dressed in our spiffy blue E-The People golf shirts, demonstrating cached copies of the site on computers on board the bus, we looked like members of some kind of cult. It didn’t help that the Grassroots Express wasn’t the earnest school bus I’d first envisioned, but a plush, leather-lined touring coach generally rented by corporations for golf outings or country western singers for tours. True, we had gone to the trouble of wrapping it to look like a giant mailbox, but the illusion wasn’t especially effective. And that night, outside a Dairy Queen in north Texas, stopped in the dark with the running lights on, I thought it looked more like a silver spaceship.

We gradually became a little less - and a little more - polished, and people stopped looking at us with quite the same fearfulness. What we realized was that we needed to seem more relaxed, and we fixed up the bus to give it a more lived-in look, more like a kind of mobile campaign headquarters. That’s when I began to notice that, although we always said that E-The People was a nonpartisan service, people saw us with their own agenda in mind. Lefties saw us as left, right-wingers saw us as right, populists saw us as populists.

In point of fact, we were genuinely, perhaps absurdly, nonpartisan. Alex wanted people to participate in the process, and thought the private sector was the best mechanism to encourage it. A peculiar kind of idealism, but maybe the only kind that was possible in the Nineties. The rest of us weren’t an especially political lot either. The design and marketing people tended to have that kind of reflex liberalism that goes along with being young and working in media in New York City. For my part, I just wanted to see our wonderful democracy machine accomplish something. If pressed, I would have babbled something about free speech that was heartfelt but perhaps not as close to my heart as the joy of imagining that we were making a little minor history. The programmers, however, tended to be more complicated. Most of them were libertarians of one stripe or another. Our CTO kept a picture of Alan Greenspan above his desk, looking out over the room like some kind of world-weary archangel.

A T-shirt with the names of 80 cities on its back and a book of clips an inch thick is all that’s left. At the time, whether I was aboard the Grassroots Express or back in Soho, moving a little cutout picture of the bus around a national map an inch at a time every day, I felt that maybe we were on to something big. In nearly every city we visited, two or three TV crews were there to meet us. In Los Angeles, a reporter from the AP rode with Alex for three or four days, and likened Alex to a modern day De Tocqueville. Sen. Barbara Boxer visited the bus and pronounced it just the sort of thing that the country needed more of. At one point that summer, there were stories about E-The People on every newsstand in America. Hundreds of newspapers and magazines wrote about us, from Forbes to the Utne Reader, Business Week, the New York Times, even the Financial Times and Der Spiegel (“Der Demokrazie Machine”). We held rallies, we served barbecue lunches to local social service directors and politicians; we even came perilously close to planting a speech in the Congressional Record (a lobbyist we hired to make introductions in Washington said we could get one of her “pet congressmen” to do it, but Alex demurred). At the end of the tour, in Austin, we even arranged for Ladybird Johnson to totter on board the bus and listen politely to our demo.

I’ve often wondered what it was about the tour that earned Alex his first 15 minutes of fame. Part of it had to do with those associations to politics and various journeys that had started me thinking about the bus. Part of it had to do with providing a photo op for something inherently intangible: the Internet. Finally, I think we caught the hope of the time that technology would somehow make us better people than we were. (I’ve since learned that similar hopes have floated upward whenever a new mode of communication has come around, from the post office and telegraph on down to the present; it’s almost part of the process, a bubble of technological idealism that inflates at the same time as the stocks.)

The issues we imagined that our users would tackle would be small and practical - a busy mom sending a letter to a park commissioner to fix a broken park swing was our standard example. We imagined ourselves building a kind of better post office - giving the people their own franking privilege. We were creating a kind of Jeffersonian world where citizens would e-mail concerns to their representatives in their state capitols or in Washington, and everyone who wanted to could “be heard.”

Then, in the months that followed the end of the tour, we learned that when it came to understanding what the People wanted from E-The People, we were all wrong. In point of fact, our users weren’t especially interested in writing their congressman, or their mayor, or anybody official. They wanted to be heard all right, but most of them wanted to be heard by each other, not some congressional aide. (Almost no one wrote a letter; our users preferred petitions by about a 10-1 margin.) They also didn’t care for local issues. Nobody wanted to fix that park swing we kept talking about. Though some did have odd pet projects: solve dog and cat overpopulation by putting birth control drugs in their pet food. Or: Keep federal grazing land open so America can continue “to produce some of the FINEST STEAKS that can be found anywhere in the world”; discourage child abuse by placing pedophiles’ pictures on billboards. For the most part, however, the issues that concerned people most were largely national and highly emotional. Impeach Bill Clinton; get Mumia Jamal off of death row. Instead of a better post office, we had accidentally built a kind of karaoke bar for political debate.

The good news is that in general this system seemed to work pretty well. People signed petitions they liked and wrote long messages on our discussion boards about petitions that they didn’t like. After six weeks on the site, the petition would be sent on to the official to whom it was addressed. The only problems that arose were the occasional bad egg. One problem in particular was a southern gentleman who liked to sign his comments C-4, and liked to try to intimidate and threaten when he could not persuade. Automatic searches took out profanity, but we couldn’t do much about C-4’s threats until I was eventually able to track him down to Lexington, KY, telephone him and ask him to stop. He was pleasant enough on the phone, and fortunately for everyone calmed down after that.

Aside from C-4’s vicious streak, he was a typical E-The People user: older, rural, male. One market research study we conducted found a disproportionate number of our users were rural single men who weren’t especially well-educated, but read more than average. (I joked about E-The People attracting the valuable Unabomber demographic. Why this was so I don’t know. I have read that real-life petitions do better in the South than other parts of the Union because people are more polite and more likely to sign out of civility. Maybe a similar principle was at work here.)

This all struck me as depressing at first - I really did want to see E-The People “do something,” and not be the home of a few cranks - but lately I’ve begun to see their non-doing in a more positive light. It turned out that the users of our democracy machine were even more democratically minded than we were: they weren’t interested in petitioning some wise statesmen to come solve their problems; they just wanted to find other people who would listen to their ideas.

When I talk to Alex about E-The People these days - I left two years ago, and he’s since donated the operation to a nonprofit group which is transforming E-The People to a dot-org - he talks mostly about the bus tour and the people he met on that 24,000-mile trip. He also speaks of the unsatisfying nature of publicity, not because the moment didn’t last, but because it just didn’t make any difference to him. He says he’s grateful to have learned that in his 20s, instead of seeing that as something to aim for later in his career. For me personally, I think mostly of my part in helping to create a circus like the Grassroots Express, and how I loved that campaign beyond all reason, with a reckless, carnival joy. I think of the waves of expectation that I could see flow towards Alex at some moments on the tour, when our visitors’ eyes would mist over with patriotic nostalgia or populist glee or whatever it was the bus and the site had conjured up for them, and I would feel that our visitors were the ones who were really creating E-The People, not us. I think too of the cognitive dissonance between what we saw - the earnest bureaucrats who visited the bus, the mad homeless who wandered by, taking fistfuls of buttons and pens - and what people saw on the evening news. How in every city the TV crews would dutifully film our three-minute infomercial, complete with easily digested talking points, and serve up our staged images with fewer questions and fuss than we would have gotten from an advertising film crew.

I still don’t really know what to make of E-The People, either as an episode in my own life or as a sign of the times. It’s tempting to see this story as another victory of irony over idealism - a comic novel in which a party of true believers goes out to save the country and finds that the country doesn’t actually want to be saved - but what happened strikes me now as a little more complex than that.

Sometimes I think about a Dairy Queen where we stopped one night for dinner out outside of Midland-Odessa. The bus had broken down earlier, and now that it was running again, we were happy to be someplace where there were a few other people around. We ate our burgers in the back of the restaurant, in a room where the Kiwanis Club met. Along with their banners and photos, there were two shelves where the members kept their coffee cups, each cup with someone’s name on it. I remember going to a meeting of one or two of these kinds of clubs in high school in my little town in Oregon (the boosters were always giving out awards or scholarships), and sitting through the silly songs and glad-handing and finding it all kind of ridiculous. I’d read Babbitt, and I knew it was certifiably ridiculous. Yet, looking back on it, I’m not so sure. They were certainly enjoying their day together more than they would have if they’d been eating a tuna sandwich by themselves in some back office. They were also helping to make our town more than a string of strip malls, or at least to make it feel like more than a string of strip malls. Given that we are herd animals by nature, it strikes me more and more that maybe those guys understood intuitively what I’ve only come to understand in the last year or two, and even more profoundly since September 11: we really do all need each other.

E-The People has not changed the world. It hasn’t even changed a small part of the world. What it has done is give a few thousand people a way to get together and talk about ideas that mattered to them, and leave behind 225,000 electronic signatures on 5000 petitions. That may not be a big deal in the scheme of things, but in this strange vast country, so rich and so poor, so interconnected and so lonely, I’m beginning to think it’s a start.