Web

Power to the People

Eventful, a grassroots website that began by drawing musicians to small markets, has trained its sights on politicians.

The website Eventful, based in San Diego, is encouraging its users to make demands of politicians. Last week, for example, some of Eventful’s users brought John Edwards, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, to Columbus, KY–a town of 229.

There by demand: John Edwards, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, appears in Columbus, KY (above), a town of 229. He was brought to the town by requests made by users of the site Eventful.

People can use Eventful to track events of interest to them, as well as to “demand” that desired events happen in their area. The site launched its demand service in March 2006. Users can register demands for particular public figures through Eventful’s site, through widgets available on some blogs, or through applications on MySpace, Facebook, and NetVibes. Once they make a demand, users can then launch a grassroots effort to get more people to sign on to the demand. The idea is that once a large enough number of people demand an event, the celebrity in question will take notice and appear.

“What happened almost immediately after we rolled out the service was that performers–particularly musicians and comedians–embraced the service as a way to engage their fans and empower them with influence over where they appear,” Eventful CEO Jordan Glazier says. He adds that performers find demographic data from the site valuable, not to mention its communications module, which they can use to respond to fans making demands.

Although musicians were among the first to discover Eventful–Glazier says that more than 20,000 of them are currently using the site–political candidates soon followed suit. While Democrat Barack Obama, who is known for his campaign’s technological savvy, was first to join, Glazier says, Edwards and Republican Ron Paul also embraced Eventful early on. There are currently demands on Eventful for all the major candidates, but not all are actively responding to or courting them. “They’re following the same patterns that musicians use to engage their fans,” Glazier says. “What the musicians have learned is how to engage them through social networks and viral online services, and the candidates are doing a really good job of leveraging those services.”

The results can coax politicians out of the heavily populated cities that they usually frequent. When the Edwards campaign launched its contest through Eventful, promising that Edwards would come to whatever place demanded him most, the two cities that rose to the top were Columbus and Eureka, CA. Glazier says that he thinks there were more demands from smaller cities because residents of larger cities knew that Edwards would inevitably appear in their area.

Columbus racked up more than 1,800 demands for Edwards, and between 1,500 and 2,000 people turned up at the event. Shawn Dixon, the New York University Law School student who organized the campaign to bring Edwards to Columbus, says that his city gathered demand for Edwards by gaining support from rural citizens in the area surrounding Columbus. Dixon sees sites such as Eventful as an opportunity for people in rural America to make their voices heard. He says he didn’t miss the irony that, in an area where many people have access only to dial-up Internet connections, the Internet was what brought Edwards off the beaten path. “We’re working with one hand tied behind our back here, and we pulled this off,” Dixon says.

Although politicians are stepping up their use of the Web, some experts doubt the medium’s ability to win undecided voters or get voters to cross party lines. “The Internet is great for fundraising and for rallying your supporters, but I’m skeptical that it can be used to convert–to persuade people,” says David Dulio, an associate professor of political science at Oakland University. “I just don’t think the power is there for it yet.” Dulio points out that the 1,800 people who demanded that Edwards come to Columbus are an infinitesimal number compared with the 120 million people expected to vote in the next election.

Others think that sites like Eventful could change the nature of political engagement. “What sets Eventful apart is its ability to predict or showcase a demand in advance,” says Andrew Rasiej, who has advised candidates including Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean on using technology in their campaigns, and is founder of the website techPresident, which tracks how presidential candidates use the Internet. When a group of people create a demand, he explains, it is a visible sign of interest in a potential event. This information can then be used to coordinate actual events. Compared with social-networking sites such as Facebook, Eventful “is probably more tied to the holy grail of online politics, which is converting online enthusiasm into offline action,” Rasiej notes. He points out that people who make a demand are not merely putting a tag on a profile page: they’re promising to show up at an event when it happens.

Rasiej says that candidates should pay attention to social-networking sites and other online services that can become part of a campaign. “The most important thing is that candidates have to recognize that all these tools have positive and negative consequences, which is all the more reason why they have to develop very savvy Web strategies and an ability to execute them,” Rasiej says. Campaigns need to respect the power of the infrastructure that voters have built up online, he says, adding, “It wasn’t so significant that [Edwards] went to that town; it was significant that he acknowledged the collective voices of the crowd.”

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