By Adam Green, CTO of UniteBlue.com, CEO of 140dev.com
I am a software engineer, but in my mind I am basically a tool builder. I have been one for almost 35 years. I build software tools in many forms. For the last 18 years they have been mostly websites and mobile apps. I am not a politician, as this history will make very clear, I am a pragmatic problem solver.
When my son, Zach Green, graduated from Brown with a degree in Philosophy, I convinced him to join me in my work. I said that being a software tool builder would let him apply his skills to real world problems.
In December, 2010 we picked politics as the area we wanted to build tools for. We would have to work for clients in other areas, but we saw the intersection of Twitter and politics as a field that would benefit from both of our skills. We knew Tweetdeck was not as far as political tools could evolve.
So we set out to build some example tools. Nobody understood how much you could do with the Twitter API, and we wanted to show the political world just what could be done.
The first website we built for politics was 2012twit.com. It aggregated all tweets about and by Barack Obama and all potential GOP candidates for President. We took it down after the election, but for 2 years it was a standard tool for politicians and reporters tracking the election. This was a tool unlike most had ever seen and with it we got a great deal of press coverage, and it brought us business despite the ongoing recession.
One of the people who thought 2012twit was a great model of Twitter and politics was a Republican operative in New Hampshire. He approached me with the idea of holding a debate with GOP candidates for President on Twitter. This had never been done before. We would call the site 140townhall.com. While Zach was firmly opposed to the idea, for reasons I did not understand at that point, the idea of creating the code for the first presidential debate on Twitter sounded like an exciting project to take on. I build tools and this was a tool that everyone would talk about, and in the worst recession our country had ever seen it did not seem wise to turn down business. At the time, I didn’t believe you should turn down a client because they have views you don’t agree with. I have since learned that this rule is not one to live by.
Our partner in this project knew lots of GOP politicians, and was able to line up 5 of the best known people running for the nomination. He also found a Tea Party group to sponsor it. We held the debate in July of 2011, and it got tons of attention. Jimmy Kimmel even did a comedy bit mocking it on his show that night.
This is the point where it should become clear that I may be a good tool builder, but I am not a good politician. I grew up Jewish in Brooklyn, so of course I am a liberal and vote Democratic. I never saw a Republican, when I was growing up. Today, I remain registered as a Democrat, and I still vote Democratic. But when I built 140townhall, I thought I was just building a tool, not making a political statement. TV channels and newspapers provide platforms for exploring the beliefs of our political leaders, why shouldn’t I? Putting information out for everyone to see is a public good, right? Boy, I am so not a politician.
While we were building 140townhall, we also decided to build specialized Twitter aggregator sites about GOP candidates. They never paid for these. They were completely free. They were a way of learning how people use these types of tools. The aggregator that got the most attention was 140cain.com. This was back when Herman Cain was a highly colorful businessman, making amazing statements, and attracting an active following on Twitter. Once we realized Cain’s real beliefs, we shut down the site. Why didn’t we build sites about Democrats instead? Because there were no Democrats running for President, except Barack Obama, and Obama For America does not farm out this kind of work.
One thing we learned from the 140cain site was how to engage supporters of political candidates and get them to interact with each other. I should say Zach learned that. He’s the one with social skills, which he certainly did not inherit from me. Zach discovered all kinds of techniques for effective political tweeting. Techniques he has built on ever since. But this also shows that while Zach is truly impressive in the Twitter realm, he also is not a politician. At least not yet. :) He treated 140cain as a learning experience. He is clearly still learning as a result.
Another tool we built was a mobile app that let you track GOP candidates. This was not paid for by the GOP, we built it on our own. We sold it on the iPhone to the general public, and many of our users were on the left who wanted a quick way to find and retweet the craziness pouring out of the GOP during the primaries. Again, we did not think of this as partisan support for one side or another. We thought of it as an information source.
But we weren’t done digging. We did nothing else related to the GOP until the end of 2011, when we were approached by the Buddy Roemer campaign to help with tools. He agreed to go Independent before we agreed to come on board, though that took a few weeks to take effect. We did not do his tweeting, or work on his messaging, but we did build some interesting technology, such as a tweet donation system. Buddy may have been a GOP candidate when we started, but nobody took him seriously. He was a message candidate who never thought he could get the nomination. His message was getting money out of politics, which we agree with. Like us, Buddy was not a good politician. His principal rule was no more than $100 in donations from anyone. He declared as independent after we joined, and toyed with the Report Party and Americans Elect. They shut down the campaign in April. To consider Buddy Roemer a threat to Barack Obama is, well … I can’t think of a metaphor to capture the silliness of that idea.
That is the complete and total extent of our experience with the GOP. At no time did we think that any of these projects would impact Obama’s re-election, or we wouldn’t have taken them on. The 140cain site was a way of revealing how an active, albeit crazy, campaign can be effective on Twitter, which it was before we started. The Twitter townhall showed the pros and cons of that medium. The GOP mobile app never really sold well, but it showed how to package political tweets in an attractive form. The work with Buddy was quixotic at best.
During the course of the GOP Presidential primaries in 2012, Zach and I both began to realize the ugliness of the people we were working with and it was startling for us both. Whether it be derogatory statements about “ people, derisive attitudes toward victims of rape, or even cheers at the suggestion that the uninsured should be left to die, we were beginning to realize there were elements of this group that we could no longer be associated with, business or no business.
Which brings us to UniteBlue. We started building UniteBlue a year ago and launched it in September 2012. We felt strongly that after the election progressives would need a place to aggregate, engage with each other, and work collectively to get their messages out and maintain pressure on passage of progressive priorities. I have stepped back a bit, and let Zach’s passion for this project and 140Elect flourish as CEO, and could not be prouder of him and the work he has done.
Nobody has paid us to build UniteBlue. We pay for it out of our own pocket and provide it for free at a growing expense. If anything is a testament to our intentions, it is our level of investment in making this tool available to the left. We collect very little data with UniteBlue, you provide only an email address outside of what is publicly available from your Twitter profile, and throughout the process have kept very clear guidelines on how that data can be used. It can not, and will not, ever be sold to a third party. The most important parts of this data, the lists of people who have joined UniteBlue, are publicly available through Twitter for free. The Twitter API we use to get this data only provides public data, that means data available to anyone else on Twitter who is interested in finding it. By definition anyone can gather this data and thousands of apps do. You know that you use many apps that have Twitter data, they all get it from the API.
So this is where you get to make up your mind. Maybe we should have found anything that could possibly have been suspicious or confusing and widely published it before we started UniteBlue, but we didn’t. Maybe we should have put this history on the home page. The politicians will have to explain that me. I do know that I’ve never seen a politician do that.
What you have to decide is whether UniteBlue has helped you and other progressives find each other and engage in meaningful dialog. As many have told us, they came to UniteBlue to find followers and discovered a community. You are welcome to that community, and the site will be free for you to use as long as we can afford to maintain it. We don’t own the community. You do.