Amplifyd: It’s about time somebody democratised democracy

- July 16, 2014 6 MIN READ

Political participation is more than just about voting in elections; it is crucial to achieving an equitable balance between society’s diverse interests. Continuous dialogue between government and society is the lifeblood of a representative democracy.  

Due to rapid advancements in technology, getting involved in politics is no longer confined to joining a political party, hitting the streets to protest or handing out how-to-vote outside election halls. Today, voters are tuning into an ever-growing number of social media channels to get their voices heard.

Dr Peter John Chen and Professor Ariadne Vromen (2012) from the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney hold the view that social media facilitates “increased access to opinion-sharing online, greater demonstration of media selectivity through the reposting of material online and the democratisation of editorial behaviour through ‘social filtering’”. Twitter, for example, has become an active space for elite-public interaction and “talking back” to sites of power – whether political, economic or media (ibid). Young Twitter users regularly voice their support for various political parties and organisations as well as their rejection of the status quo. But are politicians really reading our tweets?

There remains a sense of despondency among citizens of the West that our government don’t care about what we articulate online, let alone act upon our suggestions. Many debates on political engagement and democracy over the past decade speculate that young people’s declining political engagement and overall apathy towards politics is because of this sense of ‘helplessness’ they feel.

Amplify your voice

A new US-based tech startup Amplifyd addresses this very change, in hopes to shape the future of political engagement, firstly in America, then potentially other locations around the globe. Launched last month, Amplifyd merges crowdsourcing and lobbying in much the same vigour as Silicon Valley tech luminaries.

The man behind the startup is Scott Blankenship, who admits that it was frustration that spawned the idea for Amplifyd: “I was totally frustrated with the sense of having no influence over public policy in my community. And I felt there were no truly effective tools available that could really amplify my voice.”

With an academic background in International Politics, Economies and Marketing, Blankenship always knew his real passion was building tangible solutions to problems in society. He viewed his frustration, especially during the anti-water fluoridation movement, as a “personal calling” and took it upon himself to create a tool that would allow people to “more powerfully and easily influence their politicians, make a difference, and take back their communities from the encroachment of big spending lobbyists.”

“After graduating college…I had a strong desire to contribute to the evolution of our planet and community, but my lack of skills to manifest that desire held me back from reaching my ultimate goal,” Blankenship says.

“It was this conundrum and sense of hopelessness that sparked one of the most dramatic and transformative processes in my life. I dedicated the next eight years, making many sacrifices along the way, to learning all I could about project management and startups. I became an internet marketer, a web designer and then taught myself to code.”

Amplifyd is the culmination of everything Blankenship had learned through this process.

But how does it work exactly? Non-for-profits sign up and create a campaign for an issue. Concerned citizens can then support the organisation and the cause by purchasing calls. For each call bought, an activist caller will lobby on behalf of the supporter for that cause. Each call is recorded and the buyer has a window in which they can flag the call. This helps ensure that callers are actually doing their job and not cheating the system. All calls are also recorded so that supporters can listen to them afterwards.

The script of each call goes roughly as follows: “Hi, I’m calling on behalf of [name of concerned citizen who purchased the call], and this call is being recorded so that [name] can review the call later.” This is followed by complaints, suggestions, or other points discussing the issue at hand.

Concerned citizens pay USD$4.95 per call. Out of this, non-for-profits earn $1 per call, plus an extra $2 if they also made the call. The remainder goes to Amplifyd.

While this may appear expensive, Amplifyd is significantly cheaper than professional lobbying, and can be just as impactful. It should, however, be noted that professional lobbying involves far more than just phone calls.

But given that a fraction of the cost goes to the non-for-profit organisation, they have an additional revenue stream to finance their activities.

Despite the fact that the internet is seeping into every corner of our lives, not all online modes of activism are effective in politics. Blankenship says, “the sad truth is that online petitions are becoming obsolete in the US. Because of their ubiquity, and lack of signer verification, politicians in the US are either drastically discounting their value or creating internal policies to completely ignore them.”

“From the government staffers that we’ve talked with, the only communication method representatives really consider when voting on legislation are phone calls and in-person visits from constituents.”

Same could be said about the Australian political system – especially today, where bureaucratic dysfunction is arguably at an all time high. The Australian government don’t appear to be reading, let alone responding, to online outcries – whether it be a petition or mass tweets.

Though Blankenship alludes to online petitions being useless and in urgent need of disruption, he clarifies that Amplifyd does intend to compete with that industry.

“We want to take the effectiveness of social engagement to another level. We think we’re going to disrupt the non-profit donation model, because we’re giving people a new way to support non-profits in a more tangible and accountable way,since the non-profit gets money for every call bought,” he says.

All in all, the purpose of Amplifyd is to disrupt the flow of influence on governments, and shift the power balance from corporations back to people. But this also means that people need to play their part.

“If people don’t express their opinions and decisions on policy that affects them, then no-one can have an expectation that they will win the battle of influence. In other words, if we don’t use our voice, we can’t expect to be heard,” says Blankenship.

“Amplifyd helps people be heard without having to become an activist and quit their day jobs; it gives people a new way to participate without getting more involved.”

What this sounds like is passive political participation. At first that may sound bad, but it allows people who like to talk (or more specifically, debate), act on behalf of people who care about policy but aren’t comfortable talking with elected officials or simply don’t have the time or energy.

Prior to launching the startup, Blankenship conducted market research which revealed that a large segment of the population, while wanting more influence over public policy, don’t want to be actively involved in political debate.

Blankenship also stresses that people with a fighting tongue are able to earn extra income (up to $30 an hour) doing what they’re good at – advocating – via Amplifyd.

The startup was able to the generate media interest prior to its official launch; Blankenship’s story was covered in a number of top tier publications, which attracted several thousand sign-ups from non-for-profits and callers alike.

But what Blankenship is most proud of is having build the site himself: “I had no concept of how websites worked (as embarrassing as this is to admit now!). I didn’t even know HTML existed!”

“But I had a strong desire to create my own startup and slowly acquired the technical skills to actually build a viable product myself … I pushed past the fear of self-doubt and step-by-step, taught myself to code.”

The challenge during the development process was to build a user interface that captured three types of users – non-for-profits, callers and supporters – each with different needs and attention spans.

“Our calling centre was another key component of our user interface. Calling is very easy to do. The system is run using ajax which allows callers to seamlessly make consecutive calls. Generally I’m not a fan of extreme flat app designs and the site reflects this perspective, while still maintaining a clean look,” Blankenship adds.

At the moment, Amplifyd is featuring nine campaigns including ‘What the Starbucks?! We want organic milk!’, ‘Preventing Cable Company Fuckery (aka Net Neutrality)’ and ‘Enough! All Gun Sales Should be Subject to Background Checks!’ among more.

It will be interesting to see how much of an impact Amplifyd will have on political engagement and policy decisions in the US, and whether opportunities to expand internationally will arise.

Blankenship admits that although Amplifyd is his way of making a positive difference in the world (tech-startup-style), he cannot do it alone. The health of this business – or more broadly, a representative democracy – rests on the political participation of its citizens.

But one thing’s for sure, a startup like Amplifyd couldn’t come at a better time. We’ve seen the social enterprise movement boom over the past decade, with social startups being launched in response to the many issues humanity faces today – the most pressing being, global poverty, climate change, asylum seekers in Australia, and gun laws in the US.

It’s apparent that Gen Y are natural change-makers; they reject the status quo and they want to see justice in the world. Though ironically, they are one of the most ignored segments of society, Amplifyd certainly aligns with Gen Y values.

More information on Amplifyd is available via www.amplifyd.com.