You might not often think of Al Gore and Sean Parker in the same room, but the pair took the stage together this afternoon at South by Southwest, and they made similar points — that the democratic system has been broken by a flood of special interest money, and that the Internet could be the way to fix it.
“To the extent that these new mediums and new media are going to have a role in reforming politics, it’s going to happen because … those systems will make politics more efficient,” said Parker (who, in addition to his more famous roles at Napster and Facebook, is the co-founder of Causes, and who also invested in political startups Votizen and NationBuilder). Specifically, he says the Internet could lower the barrier to entry into politics, so people could run effective campaigns without raising vast amounts of money.
Gore was, if anything, even more excited about the Internet’s transformative potential, calling it one of the “most exciting” things he’s seen in the politics in a long time. But he also mentioned the criticism from writer Malcolm Gladwell that getting someone to “like” a candidate or a cause on Facebook results in connections that are, in Gore’s words, “much weaker and less durable” than those formed by old-fashioned organizing. Parker admitted that Causes and other organizations have been “much too focused on short-term viral acquisitions without building the deeper interactions that are necessary.” Still, he added that these trends make up the “first step in the growth of any platform.”
One of the biggest challenges to reforming the system is overcoming apathy, Parker said. People need “to feel like they’re a part of the process” and “to realize that they have incredible power and that that power is multiplicative, is exponential.” In other words, people need to understand that through social media, they are not just a single, isolated vote. To make that clear, Parker said, “We need a set of wins.” The defeat of SOPA and PIPA was one such win, which “first awakened” the Internet community to the power it has. He called it the “Nerd Spring” — like the Arab Spring, but “the South by Southwest version of it.”
As for concrete steps for reform, Parker said the biggest short-term potential comes at the local level.
“I don’t think change comes in the obvious ways,” Parker said. “Changing the way senators get elected, changing the way these big-budget, top-down, mass media, TV-dominated elections get run, I think is an important but long-term task.”
He cited a recent study showing that there are 800,000 elected positions in the United States, and that one out of every six people will hold political office at some point in their lives. Most of those positions are things like city controller and water board member — races that you usually vote on with little knowledge. (And are more easily won than a race for senator or president.) That’s the kind of “information inefficiency” that the Internet can fix.
[photo of Parker at Le Web via flickr/LeWEB 11]