Voting on the indieweb
If you’re an American citizen, you should vote in next week’s election. Maybe you already have: I sent in my mail-in ballot, which is by far the easiest and most convenient way to do your democratic duty, as well as the best way to vote while researching your choices. (All of which is probably why so many people want to do away with it.)
I was asked a while back if there was an indieweb solution for adding a widget on your website to help people register to vote. I wish this was an easier problem to solve than it is: because every jurisdiction has different voting infrastructure that doesn’t adhere to any reliably shared principles or standards, there’s no open source way to make this work without staying on top of every single voting portal. There are proprietary embeds to make this work - notably from vote.org - but they offer very few customization options and essentially require a full-page takeover. To customize more fully, you need to pay: a way for the underlying nonprofit to pay its bills, but counter to the mission of getting more people to register.
It seems to me that it would be in the interests of political parties to create simple voter registration tools and make it as easy as possible to integrate them into your site or app. Let people register as easily as possible, and direct them to the voting option that’s best for them, all from the websites and apps they’re already using. (And then, perhaps, track their registration automatically so they know if it was rejected for some reason.) Democracy is strongest when every citizen can use their democratic right to vote.
I’m not a govtech guy, but I’m aware this is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Still: the best way to make this happen would be to create a single standard for election registration. Provide a single interface standard and a set of APIs that all local election portals must implement, then make it incredibly easy for them to do so by providing libraries and open source software. The current, standards-less, highly-federated way government software works is ludicrous, and can only lead to a bad citizen experience. Not everyone needs to use the same software, but surely it should be possible to get states to agree to some base technical standards, in the same way they all now use HTTP and HTML.
This post is mostly brought to you by anxiety about the election. I feel powerless to stop what I think is almost inevitably going to happen. Please, please, please, please vote.
One thing that might be over is the conflation of venture-funded technology companies with organizations in the public interest. There was a time when companies like Twitter could be confused with public squares or other public works. Now, with the possible exception of Medium, I don’t think there’s a single example of venture funding being used in the public interest left. Any remaining names from that era (Flickr etc) have long since been bought back and taken fully-private.
On one hand, this is a real shame: a fundamental breakdown of what the promise of startups once was declared to be. I even was funded by, and then was part of, a fund that explicitly used the language of venture capital to be a positive force for change. Matter, too, is gone, and I’m still sad about it.
On the other hand, I think it’s a useful clarification. One could even consider it a moral correction. The commons that the web represents is an amazing collaboration of people sharing their voices from all over the world. It’s a force for good. But every venture-scale tech company exists to make money for its shareholders. It is unambiguously a force for profit. These are not the same thing, and when the going gets tough, finance and business show their true faces.
I’m in no way arguing that a force optimized for profit is in itself a good thing. But it’s at least an honest thing. We know what it is and can name it, and can make better decisions as a result of that clarity. We know that Facebook is a company that turns a blind eye to genocide because that’s the best thing for its bottom line. We know that Twitter’s culture is going to go the way of Tesla’s - “the worst place I’ve ever worked” is a common refrain - and that leadership will potentially support people who perpetuate fascism because it will be profitable. We know that when people show us who they are, we should believe them.
I’m also not arguing that all businesses are fundamentally anti-human. Clearly, there are small businesses, Public Benefit Corporations, and co-operatives that are ethical and kind. I’m just no longer convinced that an exponential business can also be humanist. There’s something of the Ayn Rand mercenary objectivist in all of them, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the internet at large to be reminded of that. If nothing else, it helps more people realize that they need to self-organize to create alternatives.
Here’s what I wrote on my Mastodon profile to (re-)introduce myself to the fediverse:
Hi! I'm Ben Werdmuller. I've been a blogger since 1998. These days I post regularly at werd.io. Writing is my first love, and I'm working on a novel.
I founded two FOSS social platforms (Elgg and Known), worked at a mission-driven investor, worked at Medium, and was Geek in Residence at Edinburgh Festivals. Today I'm CTO at The 19th (19thnews.org), a women-led newsroom that reports on gender, politics and policy.
If you’re on Mastodon, or any other Fediverse-capable site, add me at @firstname.lastname@example.org.