David Erickson: Welcome to Episode number 339 of the Beyond Social Media Show, the podcast for all of you marketing, advertising, public relations, and communications professionals. You can find us by searching for Beyond Social Media Show. We are recording on February 19, 2021.
Steven Clift Biography
This week, I have a fantastic guest that we will talk at length about digital engagements--digital civic engagement, e-democracy. Steve Clift is literally a pioneer in e-democracy and digital civic engagement.
Back in 1994, I was working at another job in a different career and read about an online debate between Minnesota's gubernatorial candidates. And it was a debate via email. And it struck an idea and I said need to learn more about this. I need to explore what the possibility is of online engagement. That was that debate was held by e-democracy, which is an organization that Steve Cliff founded in 1994. And ultimately, I met Steve; we are friends. He's a client, I should say--
Steve Clift: Way back when.
David Erickson: Way back when, yeah. Steve has a long, long history of this. He's gone on international tours to to share his expertise and his knowledge with businesses, governments, foundations, nonprofits. Literally a pioneer, as I said. In 2013, he was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for Open Government. In 2016, he became an Ashoka fellow, so we'll talk about that. He is currently the CEO of GoodCarts.co, and let's just kick it off. Steve, what...what possessed you to pursue this career path? It's not something that is...it's not typical. So what was your passion?
Why A Career In e-Democracy?
Steve Clift: You know, I was on this hunt and I did not succeed but I swear I wrote an essay in like, 11th grade, exactly what I'm doing now is what I want to do with my life, right? It was like: Be global but be local, make a difference but, you know, empower others, right?
So, I mean, to be honest, I'm a political person by background, right? I was involved in gobs of different political efforts. I think in 91-92, I was the state Chair of the Young Democrats, the Young DFL in Minnesota. And I worked in the legislature and I worked for the campaign in 1990, when Wellstone won. But kind of what happened was--a lot of this is like accident, I'm open to accidents, right?
You know, I got online in grad school at the Humphrey Institute, the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota. Got online for the first time. It was free. In 1992, '93. And I discovered this thing called the Internet, right? And as a political person, I thought: Oh, my God, this is going to be the most powerful medium and communications ever. Until a couple years ago, I would say, "Well, I was wrong. It's still television." But, you know, my whole thesis was like, this is really gonna change the way people communicate. And I just dug in, right? I went to the world, you know.
When I worked for a guy named Harry Boyte, right? He is an expert on citizen engagement, citizen participation; a real leader in the space. I was involved in non-partisan politics. For that is all about, you know, youth voices and youth engagement; a project called Public Achievement. And so I got on the Internet and I was doing more non-partisan politics; you know, I just thought, this is really gonna make a difference.
MN Government Information Policy Office
And I worked--actually, in my final year at the Humphrey School, I worked over at the state of Minnesota in this thing called the Information Policy Office. And as a grad student, I was supposed to staff an electronic access to government information task force. And I did that. And then I thought, well, you know, they had some extra money; it was a surplus year. And I helped then-Republican governor Arnie Carlson develop a proposal for an online system. And the legislature messed it all up. They turned it a turn, they turned it into a council, a study group, and I didn't really want it to be hands on.
This is before the web, right? This was like Gopher servers. Where at the University of Minnesota, this folder system for navi--Yeah,
David Erickson: Yeah. Explain that. Because for people outside Minnesota, they probably don't
Steve Clift: So, before the web. Basically, if you look at--I don't know what it loos like on Windows, but basically File Manager, right? So basically, you open up your files, and you see files and you see folders. And the radical thing on the internet back then was to have a folder with a name. And inside that folder were files.
And before that, you had to like, you know--think of like the oldest library system you ever been on with the green screen, you know, the green text. And you would use a thing called Telnet, right? And go into these sites. But now it's point and click and you could use a mouse. I actually met the guy who was the founder of the mouse; he used to work at Xerox. And on one of my e-democracy trips, he actually asked me for my card. It was one of my highlights: The inventor of the mouse asked me for my card when I explained what I was doing with e-democracy.
MN Government Information Access Council
So yeah, so I had that experience of like now working in government, having done politics, doing non-partisan stuff. And I pretty much knew that when the Fall came--the legislature passed this bill to create the Government Information Access Council. And so what I did in the Summer, instead of finishing my final paper at the Humphrey School, sorry, I read that plan be done.
Getting Politics Online
I thought, you know what? I want to create a website and a Gopher server and some kind of an election information website. And by accident--I mean, the key is this that I thought, well, I don't think I can get the Democrats to go online, even though I've been a Democrat. You know, why would they do it? And so I went to the Democrats, and I said, hey, this is the Governor and US Senate candidates. I said, can I have your position papers on diskette? The Republicans are coming online with us. And then I went to the Republicans, and I said, hey, can I have your position papers, the Democrats are coming online with us. And the whole idea was like, get as much information.
Birth of e-Democracy
So in 1994, e-democracy--then, Minnesota e-democracy was the world's very first election information website. I was government by day. And citizen by night, right? So by October or late September, I started a full time job. My two months of doing e-democracy full time are over. But by then, even by the primary, right? In September, it was a September primary, then, that's how we were first. All the other websites for the election emerged in October, and we were up in September. Basically, how it worked. And, you know, it was all an accident to be non-partisan. We had position papers from candidates. We had the media. Star Tribune gave us stories to put online, the League of Women Voters gave us a voter guide.
The state of Minnesota had a voter guide as well. Theirs was on linotronic system; like, the way you would publish stuff, you type it all in line-by-line. We couldn't even get an electronic copy, we had to have volunteers that re-typed in the whole voter guide. That was the only way to get it online. But in 1994, it actually was the world--you know--the most comprehensive election website ever, because they had candidates, parties, non-partisan groups, media. And then a guy named Scott Aikens; I got this email: "I'm a student in Oxford and what you're doing is what my PhD is going to be about."
David Erickson: Oh, wow.
Steve Clift: And I said, "That's great." I said, "It's the internet, you can volunteer from England," you know. And then the next email came back, and Scott said, "I'll be there tomorrow." And I'm like, Okay, all right.
And so like, the volunteers--so I didn't code a thing myself, right? So I had volunteers from the Minnesota Supercomputer Center at the University of Minnesota that did the website. A guy named Scott Fritchie--who's still a programmer out there--he put together the most amazing multi-tech system. It was a website, a Gopher server, an FTP server, and even email retrieval; you could access our information in four different ways. It was all put together by all these all these talented people that came together to do something that inspired them, which was: Could we use the Internet to have more informed elections, more informed voters?
The First Online Political Debate
And when Scott came into town, then he was--instead of studying it, I said, you know, how about like an online candidate debate? Or the idea came up between us. I'm not sure exactly how the original idea came up. But I basically recruited him to be the e-debate manager. And so we had two asynchronous debates over a week with candidates for Governor and US Senate. Needless to say, we actually got in the press before--Star Tribune--before we launched. That went AP when we when we launched, like a week later; it went AP--Associated Press. So I got calls from journalists all over the world. You know, we're calling from Italy, is this the end of politics as we know it? Unfortunately--or fortunately--I usually said to them: Well, no.
Set Low Expectations & Declare Victory
You know, I've been a private pragmatist, right? And so I learned, like; I used to joke, set low expectations and declare victory. But really it's all about setting reasonable expectations. Everybody thought everyone's gonna vote online, everybody's going to...politics isn't gonna be the same. And I always thought: Well, no, let's do increments. People will be more informed. People can have a greater voice. People can, you know, politicians can get a sense of the agenda from people. All these different things that would like move us up in steps. And that's kind of how I've sustained twenty-five-plus years in the area of digital democracy, civic technology, caring about the Internet in public life.
e-Democracy Discussion Forums
David Erickson: Yeah. Well, e-democracy has evolved has evolved over time, from being that repository of election information at the beginning to hosting, I mean, really building online communities. Because there was a Minnesota politics discussion board. So there was a listserv. So you want to talk about how those communities...how you nurtured and built those communities and how they worked?
Steve Clift: Yeah. And actually, again, one of these accidents of history, right? So we created the online debate stage. And then we had the discussion form over here, right? And the idea was that this is one way...and have a wider audience and even got the newspapers. So when you read we had an online debate, and actually in '98, we did it again. And that's when Jesse Ventura was the first debate he was allowed to participate in, was the e-democracy debate, got him in the newspaper. And then he began being invited to different physical debates. Now, I can't say that we're to blame, or we're responsible. But you know, it's very interesting to note that, I always said, there's no scarcity of space.
Many-To-Many Issue Forums
But what I wanted with the forum was a space where we can be many-to-many, right? And fundamentally, I believe the Internet's about people and our ability to communicate in groups. And so most people who thought about digital democracy in the early days talked about free speech. And I talked about freedom of assembly. And if we can assemble and talk to each other, that's where we can basically do agenda-setting and influence each other. And it was because I'm citizen-centric. While I like it that the candidates are there. I like it that elected officials that participated in my forums, government has never been in the center. The media has never been in the center. The center has been us in a circle looking at each other, whether it be the scale of a table, having a conversation, like in a neighborhood, or imagining like the online Town Hall. So yeah, so we basically created a mailing list. And when the election was over, people kept talking. They kept talking.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Requiring Real Names
Steve Clift: And we did something in 1994 that's, I think it's a key lesson. So this is a decade before Facebook. But what did we do? We said, you must use real names.
David Erickson: Yes.
Steve Clift: And why did we use real names, the first people to do that? Everyone thought you should be anonymous. No one knew you were a dog. That was a good thing. And basically my feeling was like, if no one knows you're a dog, that's why everyone's acting like an animal. Because my frame of reference was MN-politics, the Usenet newsgroup: full of anti-semitism and all kinds of just nastiness.
David Erickson: That's right.
Public Policy Network
Steve Clift: And nobody signed their real names. And so that was what motivated me to say, I want to do something different. Now, when I was in grad school, I actually started an email listserv called the Public Policy Network, a discussion list and an announcement list. Initially it was one list. And I soon realized that there are those who just wanted to talk a lot and those who just want to like the news, so I split it in half. And on Pubpol-D (public policy discussion), I said, you can only post twice a day. So we when we launched the Minnesota politics forums, the first state-level political forum. It was actually a listserver, like Kansas, like an old one. But it was really one of the first ones that was a state-level of political discussion. And these are still incredibly rare. You don't find a lot of Facebook groups, even today about statewide politics. It tends to be neighborhood stuff. Sometimes cities if they're a suburb.
Limited Posting Frequency
But the key there was that we said you couldn't post more than twice a day. So it's not like Twitter, a limited number of characters. But it limited the number of times you could speak. And so here's why this is key, right? Because email is very invasive. So email is the base--we did have a web archive--but pretty much everybody just got the emails, right?
Tragedy Of The Online Commons
Two people go back and forth all day long, and drive us nuts. They drive the audience away. So the tragedy of the online commons is when people put too much into it and it drives away the audience. So people when only had two hits in a day, they would post and then they would wait, because they knew what they had--they wanted to get the last say, if you will, right? And so what that meant was you raised ton--many, many, many, many more voices. And it wasn't until like, I don't know, a decade later, a little more than that, we were able to build that into our technology, where we actually technically could say no more than two posts in 24 hours and automate it. I don't know anyone else who has done that.
Respect People's Email Address
And we'd love to see more--if you use email at all, which is obviously rare, more rare now compared to Facebook groups, and Nextdoor and a lot of other sort of local online commons tools. But you know, if you're getting in people's mailboxes, you're part of their lives and you need to appreciate that. And, you know, those two things are the cornerstone. Plus the civility rules, like no name calling.
David Erickson: Yeah.
No Name Calling
Steve Clift: Crazy, right? No name calling. And I mean, it's like, didn't matter what you said, just how you said it was kind of a way we looked at it. And then also geographic scope. So statewide issues.
Minneapolis Issues Forum
But then in 98--so it's actually four years later already around, we launched the Minneapolis issues forum. And that's the most active forum today with over 2,000 members, talking about city politics every day. And I can go on forever about that. But, you know, the mayor in 2001 credits the forum for his decision decide to run then, R.T. Rybak. And he was there for 12 years, I think. That really, you know, we had a lot of people in the early 2000s. Speaking again, before Facebook, and before the political class became totally online and before, actually the people who do politics online, like like online campaigning, ruined everything.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Forum Review Panel
Steve Clift: Before politics as usual and the red-meat crowd came in, right? So we had this kind of this heyday of sort of like a little idyllic way to learn, you know how this stuff might work and how it could be better. Facebook just announced, what? two years ago, they're having a review panel, where like, if they have to remove posts? Well, we did that. In 1994, we had a process by which you could appeal your suspension. We didn't take down content; we just said, if you are naughty, you have to go away for two weeks.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Steve Clift: And then two months, and then six months, and then maybe the rest of your--five years is our maximum term. But basically, we have people who are suspended for two weeks in six months. You know, great. A lot of lessons, I'd love to share them. Yeah, go to website.
David Erickson: Stevenclift.com.
Steve Clift: Stevenclift.com.
Lessons For Facebook
David Erickson: That was...it was really an idyllic period. Being, you know, I was participating in those forums and everything. And you could see one, what you saw the potential of where it could go and really be a fundamental change in policy and politics and so forth. But also, you know; those three things: real names, limit the frequency of posts, and what was the other one? No name calling? Yeah, those three things. If Facebook applied that to their their platform, a lot of problems would be solved. So--
Steve Clift: Right, right. Yeah. Well, I mean, again, so we eventually we added a rule around rumor mongering. But one thing we found was that, you know, instead of going national, or global, with e-democracy.org, we went local. So then we added the St. Paul Issues forum.
Government By Day, Citizen By Night
You know, for the first 10 years--I mean, we've talked about this, how I supported this, but through 1998, I worked for state government. And then I left state government, I was government by a citizen by night. I created the website--I said that before--but I created the website for Minnesota, staff this council. You know, so I got a sense about what it was like to shovel information one way during the day and then by doing the interactive stuff, it was kind of the perfect complement. But I really, you know, found that...well, I lost my train of thought there. So, next question, please.
David Erickson: Well, I mean, one of the other aspects of it, you didn't speak about a lot, but because that you were government by day, citizen by night, you really in your role as citizen by by night had to maintain your neutrality and your, you know, your non-partisanship to make it work.
Steve Clift: Yes, yeah. So I've totally subverted my political views. Obviously, you know, there's a progressive bias to openness in some ways. So over the times, we would get complaints from conservatives about, you know, what do you mean, I can't talk like talk radio? You know, why are you telling me how--the style I have to use? But through time, we've had as many complaints from the left as the right. We get rid of the whole conversation about free speech, right?
Civil Free Speech Rights
And so basically, what we said is, well, this is our freedom of assembly. And it's our right to free speech to have civil speech as a group, right? So we basically had a group right. But we did try to say, like, our rules are very detailed. The no rumor mongering piece; we added that eventually, because, you know, locally, you could kind of tell someone like was trying to fake their identity, and they knew too much, we could kind of call them out. If it was a rumor, it was about a local issue, and we can probably correct the record pretty quickly. And basically, the stuff just doesn't scale to national ideological dialogue.
Contract With America
And then '94, you had Contract with America, which really did change kind of the tone of American political debate that hit the state level around '98. So we had about four years where basically state politics wasn't hyper-partisan. Wasn't really just like raw-meat kind of, you know, conflict. But by the time that really kind of settled into the Minnesota political scene and made it even fairly difficult to maintain the civility that I would have wanted or originally had on the statewide forum.
And that's what actually sent us down to the neighborhood level. Began even getting more and more local and basically letting cats be our, our loss leader, right? You find your cat and then you stay in you have a discussion about the height of the new building being built along the along light rail, and the local newspaper's there and they get the idea for the story and then write up about it and the local elected official is there and engages with it and all about like the commons, right? So lost cats were clearly our most important recruiting tool.
David Erickson: Well, cats are the glue that holds the Internet together. So of course they were.
Steve Clift: And that $625,000 grant we got, that helped.
David Erickson: There we go.
Steve Clift: The grant from the the Knight Foundation to basically expand in St. Paul and there we decided, you know, if we want to do an inclusively-- The Ford Foundation gave us a smaller grant actually to do a neighborhood forum in Cedar Riverside, which is the majority East African Somali area or near majority. And then in St. Paul, we had a team that spoke 10 different languages over two summers going door-to-door, signing people up for neighborhood groups. We used a tool called Group Server, email/web mix. And it was great. I mean, it was an honor to bring so many people together. But the timing for St. Paul was not as good as Minneapolis, because by then the Nextdoor emerged. They raised their $500 million. Right? Wow.
Rise Of Facebook Groups
And Facebook groups used to suck, used to just be they were out--they were separate. They were never part of your newsfeed, they were destinations. And when they improved, they became--we had people would say, "Well, I just want to use Facebook, I just I don't want to use e-democracy. I just want to use Facebook." And you have to respect that, like, people were really comfortable in that medium.
From Private Life To Public Participation
And it started from their private life. Yeah, well, we started from public life. Facebook started from private life and added public life. And I think that was, you know, killer combination, if you will. And just to kind of close that chapter in life, I basically say, we lost the battle but we won the war. Meaning, if you look all across Facebook groups, and Nextdoor, and then places there are millions upon millions of people who just of course expect that they can interact in their community on issues that matter to them, right? And have a voice. They expect that the politicians are there.
Now there's a lot more individualized--and I don't like Nextdoor from the fact in the sense that it doesn't allow civil servants and people who work in your local places of worship or your small business owners to join us equals. You have to live nearest, nearby. And I think that's like, fundamentally anti-democratic but there's ten times more good happening on that platform than not, right? And all kinds of neighborly connecting. So you know, they got their money, they figured out how to scale it, which we did it, right? I mean, you know, our stuff just didn't scale. But I love that the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of places now all around the world where you can connect with local people and talk about local issues and find missing cats.
Email For All
David Erickson: So you took your experience and did some national campaigns with Email For All and Web White and Blue. You want to talk about what those projects were?
Steve Clift: Yeah, so those were the Markle Foundation projects, started with Email For All. We did a basically an online conference. I actually got Vice President Gore to participate. Although he wrote a wonderful, wonderful submission. I wonder who drafted it?
David Erickson: Right.
Steve Clift: I helped with that one. But the whole idea--I read his stuff, and okay, I'll help the office out by figuring out what his contribution would be. But we really had an interactive, asynchronous over two week event, generate all sorts of wonderful content. And it really sort of got me interested in how do you do global knowledge exchange? So as I mentioned, I got a lot of media attention. Well, then I also got invited to speak all over the place. So I basically worked with a Markle Foundation, halftime, and then I just spoke all around the world. What a awesome thing for someone in their twenties, right?
Web, White & Blue
And as I went along, in '98, with Web, White and Blue, I basically said: "Hey," I pitched this to the foundation. I said, "with the money you're already spending, why don't we create a website to promote the idea that elections could be a useful resource and for information." And so basically, it was the first national campaign around this new thing called the Internet. And I already had four years of experience under my belt. Basically a portal, a directory of all the different media sites and it's still really fresh.
Steve Clift: And in 2000 it grew up even larger. They brought in like the Clinton's former press secretary, you know, came in to co-chair the group and it was also a notable Republican Bill Bailey, his last name I remember. It's been a while, right? And we did an online candidate debate among presidential candidates. And the reason you never heard about it is not because Al Gore and George Bush, they both said yes. Is because Ralph Nader said no.
David Erickson: Of all people.
The Minnesota Model
Steve Clift: He didn't want to say, well, you know, Ralph, we'll give you the online debate; too bad, you can't be on TV, right? He says, if I can't be on TV, I'm not gonna do this rinky-dink online thing. And so basically, obviously that's at that stage, it was all written by staff, even though it was the words the candidate and it wasn't as near as interactive as the Minnesota model.
We had a Minnesota model where we'd have opening statements in the morning on responses to a question. And then we had the rebuttals that afternoon. Or actually, they were due that afternoon. We share them the next morning. So there was a sense of time, you actually had to like--you were required to respond eventually. You couldn't just say no comment; you had to actually have had some response to that. And we made it more interactive.
But when I did the Markle stuff, it gave me that platform to then travel the world. I get invited to conferences. I've spoken now in 35 countries and I would basically Hey, join my newsletter. The Democracies Online Newswire. It's before Twitter. Basically I was the hashtag, right? I was the hashtag #DigitalDemocracy or whatever. And people would send me stuff and I'd pass it along. And I had my fingers on the pulse.
And the whole next generation of civic technologists, where it was programmers and developers, not...I'm a democracy person who used technology. And the next wave was technologists that wanted to do democracy. Now, I've always felt like that's--we need to combine those two together better. But you know, I was there, you know, mySociety, which is one of the most famous civic tech groups started by a guy named Tom Steinberg and James Crabtree.
They and others, of course, you know; I hooked him up with an NGO that was created in the UK, specifically modeled on Minnesota e-democracy. That's why they send their notes around. Let's do this here in the UK. But it had it had done some neat things within it kind of fallen on the wayside. I hooked them up with that charity, and they became, used that charity to create a new one; it was called UK Citizens Online Democracy, right? And mySociety, Sunlight Foundation, Open Plans, a handful of like players in the mid-early 2000s. This is after democracy.net, D-net, and some others did some things around elections. But these technology-driven folks, I mean, they they've done more innovative things with the Internet, politics, and government than anyone, you know, over the years. So I'm happy to have been part of that. Happy to help plant seeds.
I enjoyed going to Mongolia. One of my last--I helped--I was watching sumo wrestling with Mongolians. I mean that is like a career capstone, right? You know, and then having people singing, not seeing serenaded directly, but as a group, hearing the ethnic Mongolian cow-herding song or whatever or not--camel-herding, right? Or horses and the like. But I worked with them on their e-democracy policy with the elites of Mongolia. This is when they had a 256k satellite connection to Mongolia for the whole country, right?
David Erickson: Wow.
Steve Clift: My home office had a faster connection than the entire country of Mongolia. That was amazing. I finished off like one of my speeches in Libya, before Gaddafi fell.
David Erickson: Wow.
Libyan People's Assemblies
Steve Clift: Yeah. And I was there to talk about digital democracy and they were gonna swoop me out of the line, apparently, when I came through customs. And I'm talking to some Canadian or Brit, who's working in the oil industry there, and he's like: "Oh, yeah, just last week, did you hear about that? They had that bus of activists that got, you know, shipped out into the..." It was like: Oh, boy.
Yet back then I was this conference and I was talking about e-democracy. They had me run a whole section on it. And the idea--if you know Minnesota politics, we have precinct caucuses. Well, what they said was that they wanted to use the Internet to improve the People's Assemblies, which was Gaddafi's version of the precinct caucus. It was an Athenian view of like, everything came from the caucus, essentially. And they wanted to use the Internet to allow real-time participation in the People's Assemblies. That was the idea, you know, vaguely. As I was there, my currency went up and they started putting me on the stage. If you've ever been to like France has these conferences where they have big red chairs and everyone waxes on. Same thing in Libya: These big chairs and they just put the important people around and have them stand. They like shuttled me around. And I think I got an honorary degree from a university.
I never did meet Gaddafi's son, who was apparently the patron of this conference. He had gone to LSE (London School of Economics) and I've done a lot with LSE over the years. They used to have a Stephen Coleman professor there, then had a bunch of e-democracy stuff. And somehow I got on somebody's radar that got me invited and I came out alive. But I did have people saying to me "forty years is too long," you know, quietly. I met a bunch of professors from Benghazi, which is where a lot of the revolution started. And, you know, what a deal. I mean, that's crazy.
David Erickson: Yeah. Yeah. So a lot of that international travel led to--I assume, and your social entrepreneurship--led to an Ashoka fellowship. So how'd that come about? And so--
Steve Clift: Yeah, for those who haven't heard of Ashoka: Go to Ashoka, A-S-H-O-K-A.org. And it's a network of social entrepreneurs. It's a global network. And you get recognized, right? It's a pretty hard process. You can kind of just apply but basically, what you really want to do is get nominated by someone.
And you have to have had created a model that can be shared with the world that's new, right? And so like my model was the online Town Hall, the idea that you could use an online group to talk about politics and connect people in communities. Like, no one would think of this as revolutionary anymore. But back then I like pretty much the first one that did it, right? And decided to combine these models together. And so we had British government money from the UK Deputy Prime Minister; I had a contract with them to actually create a guidebook on how we did it.
We had money then from that project to do neighbor, issues forums in Brighton and Hove and Newham. And then we did neighborhood forums in Bristol and Oxford and that actually just pre-dated me getting grants, right? So I had contracts and then I shifted into grants and working for e-democracy full time. And then the speaking kind of declined, if you will, a bit.
But what Ashoka was looking for was someone that had an idea of taking their model and influencing others or sharing the model. Ironically, it got me some of my first funding as well, which will help me then write grants. It made me less entrepreneurial, because I was no longer cross-subsidizing. On the other hand, I was able to hire people and create jobs and really scale it up.
Work with these folks--Dan Randow and Michael Jason Smith, with a tool called Group Server, which is open source mailing list tool. It's actually soon to sunset; it's kind of come to the end of its lifecycle. But it was incredibly innovative to combine email on the web in a way that would combine the audiences.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Buried In The Coffin Of Hyperpartisanship
Steve Clift: A lot of technologists want to just say: It's a mailing list, make it that. It's a blog. I've always felt like you want to have the online space and then use different technologies to have people share it, particularly when you're geographically-driven. If you have five or three different online groups for the same neighborhood, none of them have critical mass, right? So the idea was to let people choose their technology and be part of the same space. And so I was able to fund things like that and be part of that but eventually 2016 came.
David Erickson: What happened in 2016?
Steve Clift: I don't know, you tell me, Dave.
So I remember laying in bed after the election and I just saw this lid of a coffin and then I saw these nails smack into the coffin when it came to non-partisan, bridge-building, digital democracy.
The engine for innovation in politics and the Internet has always been people who want to gain power or keep power. So it's advocacy, anybody who's really good at advocacy tools and included fundraising, right? And campaigning, right? So basically, how much noise you can make and how much money you can raise?
The civic tech world, the digital democracy world; that's like half of one percent of all the billions that go into using technology and politics. The rest of it was all about dividing us in order to get us into a camp and then vote, right?
The Technological Infrastructure Of Democracy
Or on the digital government side, having worked in that; it was putting legislatures online and parliaments but that was all still very one-way. It's not until the pandemic now that we're seeing the kinds of digital hearings that I actually outlined fifteen years ago saying, "Why couldn't you testify anywhere?" If you had a satellite--if you had a Skype connection, you should be able to testify from any local library. Why should you have to travel across the entire state of Minnesota to be an expert witness? Maybe you're a community college professor, maybe you're someone who's just feeling they want to have something to say, right? There's so much things that could have been done; it wasn't until necessity needed to be there for it to be the mother of invention. Right? So that's come out, right?
And so I had an idea in 2016 that any foundation interest investing in the infrastructure of democracy online--not just e-democracy but anyone--it just dwindled. I mean, Code for America has been great. They're still around but Sunlight Foundation, they closed. And mySociety's scaled back from their heyday; though they're still pretty active, they do a lot of development work, they make more of their money overseas with the World Bank and other types of contracts, although I don't know where the revenue comes from currently.
I believe fundamentally in combining people across the right and the left but even moreso, from the local work, is immigrant and native born, right? So it's great--all mostly white homeowners, wealthier; not just white, but wealthier homeowners--they're well-connected through tools like Nextdoor. Facebook Groups opens it a little more widely. But I mean, there are fundamental divisions in our communities that could be bridged with these tools. And there's nobody investing in that.
And then on top of that, there's no investing--now that 2020 has happened--I haven't heard anyone talk about (and my capacity is limited, to be honest) but anyone talking about what's the infrastructure for representative democracy? Knowing what we know about misinformation and extremes.
Building Better Public Hearings
How do you create better public hearings online? How do you allow people to express themselves and have government, like, understand that? How do you empower elected officials to better engage their constituents different than all being privatized through Twitter and Facebook pages and just their campaign? Why can I only interact with their campaign but not as an elected official as easily, right?
David Erickson: Yeah.
Steve Clift: The stuff that e-democracy was trying to do or wanted to do, at least two-thirds of that should be a public expense, like we thought of public broadcasting in the 60s, right? We need to think about an infrastructure for public engagement that, in part, basically just gives all the tools that are needed for the virtual committee room for every single unit of government, email archiving systems, so that everything is like aboveboard, right?
None of this "I use my AOL account," or whatever and I'm a county commissioner or even a township person--any appointed elected official--should have is to be part of a statewide email system with archiving built in, that's part of the law. So all that stuff has just been, honestly not addressed. Not adopted. And unfortunately, I just haven't seen the--it's gonna take foundations to get it going. But then you're going to need legislation and government expenditures. I don't know if it'll happen in my lifetime. It'd be nice.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Steve Clift: I'd help. But I, you know--
Powerful, Entrenched Tech Interests
David Erickson: Yeah, I, sadly; I'm very skeptical about that kind of thing happening. Because there's intrinsic interest--Facebook just basically shut off the news and government agencies in Australia, because they don't like a law. So there's an inordinate amount of power that's involved in some of these--
David Erickson: And I go to government agencies--I did a lot of work in Australia. In Queensland they had a very progressive Premier and they brought me in to help them set up an e-democracy policy. And I always say, have an email list. Because no matter how crappy your website is today, when you make it better; or how good it is today, you can tell them about it, right?
I mean, thank goodness Governor Walz has a newsletter. I think Dayton kind of did but it's really kind of promoted that. Every government agency should--like GovDelivery actually based in St. Paul; now it's Granicus, you know, merged. I would present that as the most radical, impactful tool in democracy, digital democracy, from a government perspective was letting people know about things when they could still act on it.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Steve Clift: And email you still own.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Steve Clift: Facebook page, you don't. You're a guest on Facebook. Any organization, you're a guest. And email, get the email address.
David Erickson: Preach brother, preach!
Steve Clift: Get their text, get their phone number, too. You know, give people a choice.
Steve's News Apps
David Erickson: Yeah, yep. Tell me what--we've got a little bit of time left, I want to get onto two of your projects, very important projects. You've got a couple of apps. And then let's talk about GoodCarts, which is fascinating.
Steve Clift: Like right here.
David Erickson: Exactly.
Steve Clift: For those on the podcast, Steve is pointing at his background, which has the web address. So you know, being an entrepreneurial person and my whole idea like the Internet was to get like reception-clear shortwave; this is crazy, right?
Short Wave Radio Idea
So I was a kid in Winona and I moved there when I was ten. All the TV stations changed and they were less of them, right? And everything was...all the radio stations..and I discovered though if I took a radio up to the top of the bluff, on top of Sugarloaf Mountain, I can get stuff in.
But my uncle also--so I got into antennas and things; my uncle gave me a shortwave radio. And I'm like, Oh my gosh, BBC and Radio Havana and Radio Moscow; you know, all these things. I listened to all this stuff. And I'm like: Oh, my God, knowledge is in the air. But man doesn't have bad reception. So when I got online, I thought reception-clear shortwave.
So one of my side hustles...I had a TiVo when they first came out fifteen years ago, whatever it was, and I really got used to like watching everything on demand. And so when I get in my car, I would sit there and look at the buttons. And I would go like, ah, why can't I just push button one and then hear the news headlines?
And so I basically had an app built. I found some developer to play the headlines from National Public Radio, BBC, Voice of America, a handful of others. And eventually it became the super news app. And so I ended up with a News Radio in English from 60 countries. And a lot of it was the stuff you used to get on shortwave. And then I also had live streams.
And we just actually came out with a new version or rebuilt version--I have a new developer--and it's 1RadioNews.com. It's, I don't know, 200,000 or so 300,000 downloads, over the years. And I'm hoping to expand it. You can get your Pro subscription for one dollar a month. And then that way I'm trying to create--or six bucks a year or forty bucks for lifetime. It used to be three bucks for your life, you know, to get a Pro version. And I'm trying to create a version where just the money that's contributed will pay for it, you know, the work on it, because it is a labor of love. Maybe it can be commercially viable. But for the most part, it's a labor of love.
TV News App
The new app that came out a year and a half ago, is I found a developer who had created a video player. Basically, if you you search Google Play or even Apple, the app directory, for video player or YouTube video player, people basically aggregate YouTube music videos and turn them into music players. And so he had developed one of those, and I said: "Hey, I curate news. You have an app. Let's combine that together."
And so we're partners and we just had our, I don't know, 1,200,000th download, right? So 1.2 million people have downloaded it. We were featured by Google six weeks over the holidays. And that gave us 400,000 downloads, which brought us over the top--I can't say that, I signed an NDA but anyway, too bad now, too late now. So we got promotion from them. It almost made him enough for him to work on it full time.
But then AdMob screwed us over for a few months with our pay rate because we were too successful. Here's the trick. People in Ghana love to click on ads. And so Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, 18-to-25 year olds were my niche audience there. In the US, the people who do the news is like 55-year-old men and older, right? But in Africa, big, big hunger for this stuff.
But because they clicked on the ads so much, they basically flagged me for invalid clicks. It wasn't; it was a false positive. But they basically penalize me 95% of the revenue. We finally got out of that. We got featured by Google. And we're working our way back up. And it's exciting. There's news from 2,300 TV stations around the world; 150-plus countries in 91 languages, 91 languages, at least. I mean, I tried to figure out what some of them are. And I've taken the time to do that on the side here. So that's been a lot of fun. TVNewsApp.com.
David Erickson: And the radio one is numeral one radionews.com or is it--?
Steve Clift: Yeah, the number one radionews.com, though I finally gave up on paying the 10 bucks a year own oneradionews, with the one written out. It's not worth it. But yeah, so we have the number one radio news. If you just search Google for radio news app, add the word app, it should be the top hit. So it's only on Android. Sorry, iOS hasn't let us in yet.
David Erickson: Let's talk GoodCarts.
Steve Clift: Oh, yeah. I always say people come join the Android proletariat. It's where the people are; well, outside the US and Australia and Japan. But anyway. So I had some real soul-searching after those nails in that coffin, right?
David Erickson: Right.
Steve Clift: And I started looking around. I still do some consulting and speaking for a couple years there, but, you know, looking for the next big thing. And I'm a digital door-knocker, I've written articles titled The Guide to Digital Door-Knocking for civic tech events.
Chris Dykstra & Warecorp
And so I met a guy named Chris Dykstra. I've met with him many times over the years. A really respected impact entrepreneur who has bootstrapped his own software development company called Warecorp. And I was saying, I need to find a way that I can help someone promote their agenda, their project, rather than just my project. And here's what I do.
And he said: "Well, let me show you something." And he whipped out his laptop and he gave me a demo--this thing is in alpha state, basically--called GoodCarts. And long story short, it's a smart digital version of coupons on the back of the receipt.
And today, now--the last two years I've been leading it--when you check out one of our members stores--and we have 75, we're going on 100, then 1,000--you basically have a little box in your receipt that says: Do you want to look at a discount that you earned from other good stores, other sustainable stores? Right?
So we're very careful to try to find stores that have an impact: Fair trade, ethical fashion, buy-one/give-one models, percent to charity, charity owned, B-corps. All this goodness, it's vibrating everywhere and popping up.
Free Shop For Good Advertising
And so it works, right? I mean, we're basically able to tap that exhaust, that web exhaust. People normally just close that page. And now we're working on where we're using graph technology. And we're like developing a prototype for coupon matching. And that actually would probably be more, that technology would be useful in healthcare and lots of other areas.
And GoodCarts being part of a software development company called Warecorp--so that Warecorp is the umbrella, GoodCarts is the incubated startup within the umbrella. You know, we're like a case study of sorts, for a whole line of technology development.
And then every day I'm talking to stores. I hired smart people, including David Erickson here, to help me with digital advertising and digital strategy work.
Impact Retail Content
And we have all these GoodGuides. So if you want to start your own ethical impact-oriented online shop. Shopify is really on fire, so we have a Shopify app. But we'll have six GoodGuides: 10 to 15-page guidebooks to different elements of running an impact-oriented online retail store.
I edit a newsletter called Impact Retail. So I learned with Democracies Online Newswire kind of how to follow stuff. Now I pick out ten stories a day on impact in retail. It's for free, just go to search impact retail newsletter in Google and you'll find it.
It's one of the more exciting things I've worked on, right? And it's a real opportunity to seriously help millions of people discover new brands where they can shop their values, and ultimately increase, you know, revenue by a billion dollars or more across thousands. I need to be at about 30,000 member stores for that, right? You know, in five years, we can generate a billion dollars of impact. And a little chunk of that would be the revenue for e-Democ--sorry, GoodCarts.
And that's always the thing. I always thought with e-democracy; how can we get revenue? How can we get revenue? And so when I discovered--we did donations and grants; but we never did ads, which was maybe a mistake? I don't know.
Alternative To Ads
But with GoodCarts, it's an alternative to ads, right? The only people lose with GoodCarts is Facebook, Google, and Amazon for them, right? So we're gonna basically skip them. Instead of having people who are trying to reach conscious consumers bidding against each other, making their ads more and more expensive to reach the same people. No, they could just grow together.
David Erickson: Right.
Ethical Brand Discovery
Steve Clift: Because there's a lot of your wallet. Even if you like to shop Patagonia, right? And all the baby Patagonia's that are part of our network, right? I bet you there's a lot more of your wallet you could spend based on your values, if it was convenient or you knew about those brands, right? And that's what we do; we help you learn about them.
And they're not just going to be all online. We obviously--we have one of our members is Coconut Whisk, one of my favorites. It's a Minnesota-based startup. It's been around for a couple years, few years. Started by a young woman named Bella. And she started it as a school project at Mankato State, I believe--or Minnesota State University Mankato. And they're in 60 stores, right? But they're part of our network. And maybe that'll help them get exposed in a way they get someone from another store, right? And so it isn't just online; it's really about just breaking through and getting exposure any way you can.
Free For Stores
And ours is free; crazy, radical. Used to have commissions; we drop them for impact stores. We will have fees for bonus features, we will have fees for traditional retailers.
GoodCarts Affinity Networks
We're gonna do different kinds of affinity networks: Made in the USA. And we just talking today, actually, with some folks that run one of the biggest Black-owned marketplaces about ways we can collaborate here and we could do a Black-owned affinity network. Really just change the way people discover ways to shop their values, or shop the impact they wish to see.
Harnessing Exit Traffic
David Erickson: What I really love about GoodCarts is it's just brilliantly simple. I am going to a fair trade coffee shop that I like and I buy my beans from and I want to contribute to a business that has ethical standards and sustainability-focused and everything. I buy my beans from there, go to the checkout page and once you get the confirmation of your purchase, that experience--people leave and that is wasted.
And you figured that out so, no, we're gonna send you to more coupons of other network stores that have the same values as you and you're gonna discover new businesses. So from a consumer standpoint, it's brilliant. Because it exposes you to more--
Steve Clift: --Thank you banners a half; look at the coupons, click one, put in your email address. I guess we're getting more than two, but anyway. And then you go to the store.
David Erickson: Yeah.
Steve Clift: You know, so it's that easy.
How eCommerce Stores Join GoodCarts
David Erickson: As a merchant, as somebody who has a store and I want to sign up, what's the process? And what is the criteria for me being eligible?
Steve Clift: It's free; it's free to join. It's free to leave. I always joke if your coupon works too well, get too many new customers, you can always make it worth--unsweeten the deal. If you're on Shopify, we have an app. You go to the Shopify store and type in GoodCarts.
Go to GoodCarts.co, we also have a little demo there: You can see what I just described in terms of how the coupon works. But you go there and you just push Add to Your Shopify Store and then you take 10-15 minutes to create a coupon, you grab a couple images. And that's all that's required. And you're in.
A lot of the stores have set it up and set it and forget it. And you have to maintain it; doesn't cost you anything. Even when we had commissions, it was only results-based. So it didn't cost you anything if it wasn't working how you wanted it to. Or if it did work, well, then you were just happy, right?
You would change it because you want to optimize it, you want to try to do A/B testing. And you can run more than one discount at a time and figure out which ones work better. And we do that all for free as well.
Spotify & Additional Platforms
If you're on like WooCommerce or Squarespace, you can integrate as well. You just sign up on our original platform; there's links right there. And there's a little guide we send you on how to integrate. Over time, we're going to add more apps and make them one button to install. WooCommerce is next; probably Squarespace.
We have to make it really easy for stores to sign up because a lot of them are just people who have day jobs and they're doing this on the side. When they only have a few employees, yeah, it's fine. But just the founders are so darn busy, it's hard to get on their radar. Or you want to make it easy for the marketing person to say it's really easy to do and we'll get on and it won't take a lot of time.
Because if you run an eCommerce store, like maybe those who are listening to this who have, you know that you get pitched ten times a day with someone selling some widget or that widget and a lot of it's snake oil. And how do you figure out what you can trust and what's worth your time. We were trying to break through that noise. And it's not easy, to be honest, getting to 75 and 100 stores here. It is hard fought. On the other hand, it shows that proof that it's worth joining.
GoodCarts Retention Rate
And we have like 95%-plus retention rate. I can count on less...on three fingers the number of stores that I signed up since September that aren't currently part of our GoodCarts network anymore. That's it out of sixty, right? You know, that join, so not bad.
David Erickson: Not bad at all. Not bad at all. And--
Technology For Good
Steve Clift: --It's technology for good. How it fits in my career, if you will? I've always been about using technology for good. Good is my foundation, democracy, citizens solving problems, making the world a better place. Technology is the tool.
And so instead of coming in--I talk to a lot of folks in the retail-for-good space: They were in retail, got tired of all the evil things that were happening. The overall lack of purpose, the fast fashion and exploitation of rain forests for palm oil or whatever it might--whatever the ingredient. Name the ingredient, name the exploitation, right? They want to do something different.
So it's a little different. I come in from I wanted to use technology for good. And so it's kind of a give me a fresh perspective. But I actually--I really respect the folks that have come from the retail line of things. Or the folks that are--a lot of these member stores are second careers. People were a corporate attorney then now they launched a--HoonArts: This is fabulous, these amazing scarves and shawls from Kyrgyzstan, right? It's like the only open fair trade brand out of Central Asia and just stunning: Second career, alright? And then we're glad to be part of their network and they do a good job sharing us and we like to promote them as well.
How To Reach Steve
David Erickson: Very cool. So GoodCarts.co. You're on Twitter as eDemocracy, right?
Steve Clift: No, @democracy. Just @democracy. I was number 800-and-something on Twitter. I signed up for the account and then I forgot about it for three years.
David Erickson: How could you forget about a handle like that? That's like--
Steve Clift: Well, I know. It actually was about a year and a half. I tried to use it and then it became hot. I honestly was using a podcast, some sort of audio tool--Odeo--and they said, Oh, we have this new thing called Twitter that we just launched. So that's how I found out about it early and got to I'll be @democracy and it's kind of a fluke. You know, I get engaged once in a while during insurrections and skirmishes like that. You know, when poilitics are hot, I tried to share a few pro-democracy things.
David Erickson: Yeah. So how else can people get in touch with you?
Steve Clift: So, @democracy, @GoodCartsCo. Obviously, we're on Facebook for GoodCartsCo. LinkedIn, I love LinkedIn. So just type in Steven Clift with a V into LinkedIn; say you heard me on here. I'm pretty much willing to connect with pretty much anybody and I love--I mean, this was my whole e-democracy life was connecting people to each other.
Steve Clift: And so I talked to a documentary film director two days ago, who's doing a film on vanilla in Madagascar. And I talked to a guy who has an applied plastic startup who also happened to do a documentary on the Rohingya after he had a kind of a golden--he exited out of a company that sold and he was a salesperson, had a big sale. So what did he do? He went to where the Rohingya were and create a documentary, which is now on Amazon as of this month, right?
David Erickson: Wow.
Steve Clift: You know, yeah! I don't remember the title offhand. I'll put in the notes or something. You know, so like connecting people is what I'm all about. And whether it be civic technology, technology for good, making an impact in retail: Say hello on LinkedIn. That's where I have my Rolodex--old fashioned word. And I'm glad to connect you with anyone in my network that you'd like to talk to. Or just, go on Calendly on GoodCarts--buried in the contact page is a link to get on my calendar and we'll just have a little Zoom gathering and chat.
Impact Retail On Clubhouse
And I'm now thinking about creating a little talking group on Clubhouse. I had to--I'm an Android guy but I went and got my wife's old iPhone--and you can't even see it there. Whoo. It's like a secret. For those on the podcast, I just held it up in front of the camera and it's hidden in the background. But anyway, I'm thinking about doing an impact retail discussion group there. And we also at GoodCarts have done some Zoom meetups and we're plotting some of those. So get on the GoodGuide email list; get the GoodGuides coming to you. And then we'll probably promote the some of the meetups we're going to do there on the impact retail space.
David Erickson: Yeah, these GoodGuides are fantastic resources. In-depth topical things on shop-for-good eCommerce on--
Steve Clift: Free.
David Erickson: Yep, free. So we will link to everything in the show notes at BeyondSocialMediaShow.com/339. Thanks for watching and, especially, thank you, Steve, for joining us today.
Steve Clift: Thank you for having me, David.
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