Power from the People

by Doc Searls

At a time when the standard Linux story covers yet another corporate savings move or grand strategy by an industrial giant, it's nice to run across small but terrific efforts that happen to run on the world's handiest operating system. I ran into two of these efforts last week in New York. As it happened, both projects focus on what people can do for themselves and their government.

The first was e.thePeople, which held its launch event on Thursday, June 27th. e.thePeople's slogan is "Democracy is a Conversation", which leverages the first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto. I'm kind of associated with the whole Conversation thing, so I was on hand to give a brief opening talk at the invitation of Michael Wieksner, who was running the event. While we were hanging out, Michael showed me how e.thePeople has created an effective instrument of grass roots democracy, as well as how they happened to build the whole system on Linux and other open-source foundations.

Among other things, I was impressed at how easily, efficiently and effectively one can create a petition on any issue and direct it to the relevant legislators and regulators at any level of government. The same goes for a fax campaign; those government types apparently respond better to faxes than to less physical forms of correspondence. e.thePeople also back-ends the Politics sections of newspaper sites across the country, including the Chicago Sun-Times. Click on the "Politics" link in the paper's list of features, and the whole section comes up as an e.thePeople-hosted "digital town hall".

The second project I learned about while in New York is MEETUP.com. Before the e.thePeople party started, Scott Heiferman, cofounder and CEO of MEETUP, button-holed me by e-mail. It seems he was going to be at the e.thePeople event and an unrelated party that followed, to which we both had been invited. What he showed me was far more impressive than any of the earlier dot-com efforts that tried to commercialize the same thing, which is nothing more than arranging get-togethers. According to the FAQ, "MEETUP does something that the Internet should do: It connects people around topics of interest locally."

But what really blew my mind is how simple and practical the whole thing is--and how far it has already spread. For example, an International Slashdot MEETUP Day is coming up, with reports of huge participation levels. (Here's the Slashdot item.)

Like e.thePeople, MEETUP runs on Linux. The site's credits page extends gratitude to "the communities behind Linux, Java, Apache, Tomcat, MySQL, Postfix, Tux, Bugzilla and Blogger", among others. When I asked Scott Heiferman if MEETUP could have been possible without the free stuff that comes from those communities, he said "No way."

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be looking at both projects in more depth.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

email: doc@ssc.com

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