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Sean Parker: New Technology Can Diminish The Dominance Of Money In Politics

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, March 13 2012

Sean Parker's string of investments in the political technology space in recent years are rooted in the belief that lowering the cost of electioneering is the key to diminishing the corrupting influence of money in politics.

That's how one of the world's most famous internet entrepreneurs characterized his investments and involvement in Causes, Votizen, and more recently Nationbuilder.

Parker spoke in front of a packed room with Vice President Al Gore at South by Southwest Monday evening. As has been widely reported, both bemoaned the ongoing influence of money in politics and the rise of SuperPAC spending on television advertising. But most of those reports glossed over the deeply intriguing point that Parker was making: If politics is all about leveraging relationships to influence opinion and to move people to vote, then the key to replacing or dislodging the influence of television is leveraging individuals' social networks and giving campaigns as many low-cost tools as possible to activate those personal networks of influence.

"To the extent that these new media are going to have a role in politics, I think they will make politics more efficient, and by that I mean they will make it less expensive to get elected," Parker told the audience Monday night.

Prior to 2008, Parker might have sounded hopelessly naive. But in the wake of Barack Obama's successful campaign and the role that both Facebook and MyBo played in helping him overcome the party incumbent, one has to concede that he has a point -- although the irony is that the Obama campaign used its strategy and tools to go on to raise a jawdropping and unprecedented half a billion dollars.

For his part, Parker focused on changing the political process for everyone else running for office around the rest of the country. He noted that there are 800,000 elected positions, and that one out of six people will hold office at some point in their lives.

"At the end of the day, if you can deliver votes to politicians much more cheaply and cost effectively, in fact, you could do it close to free, then a lot of these problems wouldn't go away, but at least they wouldn't be so severe ... and we may have the opportunity to take back the system," he said.

The world has already seen this phenomenon, he said. In 2010, Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Meg Whitman outspent her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown in the race for California's governorship by five to one. (Parker conveniently omitted discussing other factors in the race, such as the torrent of negative press when Whitman's former maid emerged and told the world that Whitman had fired her on the spot after being informed that she was undocumented.)

Nevertheless, it's this fundamental belief in the power of personal influence in politics that drove his investments of time and money into Votizen ("It essentially gives you a Klout score for your political power,") and Causes ("[It] appears to most of the world to be in the non-profit space, but in reality is more of a Trojan horse to get 140 million people self-organized into various issue-based groups so that we can start pairing those people with the political campaigns and parties to those relevant issues.")

Gore gently pushed back at Parker during the conversation by mentioning a 2010 piece by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, in which Gladwell argues that the ties formed through real-world organizing are far stronger than those forged on Twitter.

"Clicking on something isn't nearly the same thing as showing up offline or opening up your wallet, and building real social capital," Parker acknowledged.

But getting users engaged in online social networks is often just one step in moving people up a gradual ladder of increasing engagement.

Still, he bemoaned what he characterized as the tech industry's political apathy, and joked that the recent uprising by techies against legislators in Washington, D.C. over the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act was their "Nerd Spring."

Ultimately, he said, the current crop of startups in the political technology space are only in the beginning stages of changing the political process. He encouraged anyone with an idea for a new company to contact him.