The Next Man to Shake Up U.S. PoliticsShare on Twitter Share on Facebook
I wanted to make sure you saw this profile piece about FWD.us's President Joe Green. It's a pretty good look into what FWD.us has been up to since the launch (and includes a little humor too). I hope you can take a look.
The Next Man to Shake Up U.S. Politics
By Rhys Blakely
The Times of London
Tech titans from Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates via Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer have given Joe Green millions of dollars. Why? Because they believe he’s the man to shake up American politics.
In a large windowless room in Silicon Valley, 20 young computer programmers are pulling an all-nighter. They’re divided into small groups and their mentor – the 29-year-old Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg – huddles with each in turn.
A vast ice bath full of energy drinks sits in a corner. Whiteboards frame the scene. Zuckerberg is dressed as he almost always is: grey T-shirt, black hoody, blue jeans. The Facebook boss is sphinx-like; inscrutable and slightly awkward – even in front of these programmers, most of whom are barely out of their teens. He listens intently but says little. As he approaches each group, he asks the same question: “What are we building?”
On the fringe of the room, Joe Green, the man Zuckerberg has chosen to lead Silicon Valley’s most significant foray into politics since the invention of the microchip, looks on. Green has the rumpled look of a deviant academic, or perhaps a character from an Eighties Hollywood frat-house comedy. He’s Zuckerberg’s political brain. A year ago, Zuckerberg put the 30-year-old in charge of a new political group called FWD.us (pronounced “Forward US”). It’s backed by a cabal of insanely wealthy tech tycoons. And it says it wants to reboot American democracy.
At first glance, the story of Green and Zuckerberg’s friendship looked as if it would be a tale of one of history’s great missed opportunities. When Zuckerberg, at the age of 19, created Facebook in a Harvard University dorm in 2004, Green, a garrulous social sciences major from the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, was living in the adjoining room.
They had met through a Jewish fraternity, and Zuckerberg was already gaining a reputation for crafting addictive code. Before Facebook, he had built a software tool that could learn a user’s musical tastes and suggest playlists. For a while it looked as if Microsoft was going to buy it. “We were really excited,” remembers Green. “We thought we might get to buy a flatscreen TV. Kind of funny, looking back.”
As the term progressed, the quiet, intense Zuckerberg emerged as the leader of their college cohort. In October 2003, he recruited Green as “co-conspirator” for his latest scheme: Facemash, a site that presented two randomly selected pictures of Harvard students, and then let the user vote on who was more attractive.
To build it, Zuckerberg harvested university data – head shots of hundreds of students – without permission. Many regarded Facemash as mean-spirited. It certainly had copyright problems. One student called it “clearly invasive of privacy, hurtful, and generally a bad idea”. It was also hugely popular. Nobody was surprised when Zuckerberg and Green were dragged in front of Harvard’s disciplinary board.
Zuckerberg narrowly missed being suspended. After learning that he’d escaped serious punishment, legend has it he bought a bottle of Dom Pérignon to celebrate.
Green’s father, a mathematics professor at the University of California, happened to be visiting and was deeply unimpressed by Zuckerberg’s cavalier attitude. His dad, Green explains, “was very supportive and not at all high-pressure, but the idea of me being kicked out of college really bothered him”.
“No more Zuckerberg projects,” Green Sr told his son. And so, when Zuckerberg offered Green a share of Facebook – then a nascent start-up – in exchange for joining the company, Joe Green said no. For years, Zuckerberg teased him about his “billion-dollar mistake”.
I meet Green behind the scenes at a FWD.us event – a “hackathon”, where those 20 young programmers being overseen by Zuckerberg have 24 hours to build new politically useful software tools. Like the programmers, Green has been up all night (it’s 11am when we meet). He’s sprawled in an armchair, munching cashew nuts. A model of Silicon Valley schlubbiness, he wears a crumpled shirt and a pair of jeans. He looks like an unmade bed.
If he can tell the story of his lost Facebook fortune without looking too pained, it might be because he considers himself an activist rather than an entrepreneur. During the summer of 2004, while Zuckerberg went to California to begin building a business now valued at $117 billion (£71 billion), Green went to rural Arizona – “the hottest populated place in America… 120 degrees” – and then to Nevada, to toil at the coalface of John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.
Since then, he’s founded two pioneering tech companies. But the first part of his CV he mentions is how, while at Santa Monica High School, he won a seat on the local school board and organised a living-wage campaign for local restaurant workers.
At Harvard he studied under Marshall Ganz, whose grassroots-focused theories of community organisation helped propel a little-known senator by the name of Barack Obama towards the White House, and it was in college that Green first awoke to the political potential of social media. In 2003, he discovered Friendster, a forerunner of Facebook, while working for Kerry in New Hampshire. “I had this moment… an epiphany,” he says.
According to Green, the fundamentals of political activism “haven’t changed since Moses” – but social media can “amplify” their effects. “People get involved in a movement because of the goal,” he says. “But what keeps you going, what gets you out of bed at 6am on a Sunday morning to go knock on doors – it isn’t the candidate. It’s the fact that your friend is picking you up – it’s the social bond. That’s what builds movements.”
For the past decade he’s worked at digitising those connections. In 2007, he and Sean Parker, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was Facebook’s first president (in the film The Social Network, he was played by Justin Timberlake), launched Causes, a Facebook app that allows organisations to raise money online. There are more than one billion Facebook users. Causes exploited the links between them to rattle a virtual collection tin.
Next, in 2009, Green co-founded NationBuilder, a company that provides digital tools for political campaigns and which has already helped shift the course of British politics.
In February 2011, with the Scottish Parliament election looming, the Scottish National Party was down 15 points in the polls to Labour. It was then that the SNP decided to use NationBuilder to power a new website, snp.org. Two months later, website in place, the SNP beat Labour by 32 seats, securing a majority of the Scottish parliament.
Essentially, NationBuilder had allowed the SNP to harpoon supporters via social media. Using Green’s company’s software, the SNP’s web team could identify, instantaneously, every social media user who typed “SNP” into Twitter, or who discussed a candidate or issue relevant to the campaign on Facebook. Party activists reeled these potential supporters into the SNP website – and towards an SNP vote. This didn’t replace the old-fashioned business of canvassing door-to-door – but Green argues that it was a hugely potent supplement.
We can expect to see more of this in British politics: NationBuilder now counts the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats as clients.
In February, however, Green stepped down from the company. “I have spent the past seven years building the tools to empower political change online,” he explained on Facebook. “Now it is time for me to put them to use myself.”
It was the first hint that a group of Silicon Valley’s richest luminaries – led by Green’s old college friend Mark Zuckerberg – had designs on Washington.
Silicon Valley owes its genesis to tax dollars. In the Thirties, US Navy research into radio, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, established a foundation for technological enterprise. Later, Pentagon funding would yield the internet.
Still, though, the Valley has a reputation for regarding Washington with disdain. PayPal’s Peter Thiel, who was Facebook’s first serious investor and who made $1 billion backing Zuckerberg, embodies a libertarianism not uncommon among the tech elite. He’s trying to develop new city-states on platforms out at sea – to escape the tentacles of government.
Steve Jobs was just as scornful. He had to be coerced into having dinner with Barack Obama. Afterwards, the late Apple boss said, “The President is very smart [but] he kept explaining to us reasons why things can’t get done. It infuriates me.” Green agrees that the two cultures jar. “They are two very different places,” he says. In Silicon Valley, “There is an assumption that anything is possible. In Washington, there is an assumption that you must work within the system. It’s ‘What can we do?’ versus ‘This is how it’s always been done.’ ”
Green is now on a mission to reconcile these two worlds – because of an encounter Zuckerberg had with a schoolchild in early January. The Facebook boss was teaching a class in entrepreneurship at a school close to his office, when he asked his students about their plans for university. He was shocked when one of the sharpest said that he probably wouldn’t go – because he was an undocumented immigrant who had been brought to the US from Mexico as a baby. Zuckerberg, who is worth $19 billion, decided that this boy’s predicament was morally wrong and economically dumb.
Students like this are “smart and hard-working, and they should be part of [America’s] future”, he said. This was the reason that he bankrolled FWD.us: to lobby Washington to reform the immigration system – something that hasn’t been achieved in 27 years. He wants new laws to provide the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship, ending their underclass status.
Coincidentally, this legislation would also make it easier for Facebook to hire relatively cheap, foreign computer programmers. But Green doesn’t want to focus on that part, and the FWD.us hackathon event I’ve been invited to has been designed to give the FWD.us cause a youthful face.
The 20 programmers Zuckerberg is talking to are all “dreamers” – the name given to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children and have known no other life. They are very smart and very charming. Some did not know they were not US citizens until they tried to apply for driving licences. Before the hackathon begins, Zuckerberg tells them that he regards their cause as one of “the great human rights issues” of our time.
When Zuckerberg picks a cause, things happen fast. By the end of January, he and Green were formulating Silicon Valley’s first really serious political battle plan. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, who is worth an estimated $4.4 billion, was an early recruit. Other donors included Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, whose personal fortune stands at more than $8 billion, and Elon Musk ($6.7 billion), the PayPal co-founder. John Doerr, a venture capitalist worth $2.9 billion, came on board. So did the richest techie of them all, Bill Gates ($72 billion). The list of “founders and major contributors” soon read like a who’s who of Silicon Valley. Everyone who was anyone, it seemed, wanted in.
As spring approached, FWD.us was secretly amassing support and must have looked to insiders in very good shape. It had a bundle of überwealthy donors; Green brought grassroots savvy and started hiring experienced political hands in Washington.
The zeitgeist also seemed to be on its side: from the Obama campaign of 2008, to the Arab Spring of 2011, social media had proved an explosive political catalyst. Silicon Valley had a reputation for getting things done – unlike Washington, which had been paralysed by partisanship.
In February, Green left his day job at NationBuilder. Zuckerberg, he says, was “super-involved”. And then things started to go wrong.
In Silicon Valley, it is common for a start-up company to launch “in beta”, and to work out the bugs along the way. On April 4, Joe Green learnt that Washington doesn’t play by the same rules.
He awoke to learn that a secret prospectus for FWD.us, written to attract donors, had been leaked. This was bad news. Under the heading “Our Tactical Assets”, he’d listed three reasons why “people in tech” could become “one of the most powerful political forces… 1: We control massive distribution channels, both as companies and individuals… 2: Our voice carries a lot of weight because we are broadly popular with Americans… 3: We have individuals with a lot of money. If deployed properly this can have huge influence in the current campaign finance environment.”
The document started a firestorm. It seemed to suggest that Zuckerberg might somehow leverage Facebook for his own political ends.
Politico, the website that leaked the document, is a key player in setting the Washington news agenda. Its story portrayed FWD.us as an Orwellian cabal with the power “to control what messages its targeted audience will see”.
The official launch came a week later, with a piece by Zuckerberg in the Washington Post. It went much further than immigration: FWD.us had its sights set on education and planned to press for more investment in science. It would work to ensure that the benefits of technological advance would “belong to the public and not just to the few”. The media lapped it up. But the leak had raised questions about Green’s competency.
He crosses his arms tightly across his chest when I mention the incident. “We put this group together very fast. Ideally, we would have taken a lot more time,” he says. “[But] our core strategy is, I think, correct, which is to focus on the politics of individual members of Congress.”
But many in the tech community disagree with that. They expected that FWD.us would try to disrupt the Washington status quo – to do to politics what iTunes did to selling music. Instead, within weeks of its launch, FWD.us went retro, pumping money into old-fashioned TV ads. Green appeared to be trying to hammer out tacit bargains with key politicians. If they would support the FWD.us position on immigration reform (which many of their voters did not like), FWD.us would pay for ads in their constituencies. These would remind voters of these politicians’ positions on other issues, which voters did like.
One ad praised Lindsey Graham, a pivotal Republican, for his support of a controversial oil pipeline. Mark Begich, a Democrat, benefited from a spot trumpeting his willingness to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Josh Miller, a social media entrepreneur, attended a briefing lunch with Green and left upset. “FWD.us effectively bribes politicians by saying, ‘Vote with us on this controversial issue, and we’ll remind your constituents why you’re great on some other issue they care about – any issue,’” he said. The Economist reported that other tech leaders had suggested that Green was stooping to “the worst kind of old-style Washington politics”.
In May, just a month after the launch, Elon Musk quit FWD.us, saying he was uncomfortable with Green’s methods as “a little too Kissinger-esque, realpolitik”. Another Silicon Valley star, David Sacks, also departed, for much the same reasons.
Six months after the firestorm, Green says essentially he’s unapologetic. He should, he says, have made figures such as Musk better aware of his intentions. But his basic message is: this is how stuff gets done in Washington.
He defends his TV ads as pragmatic – a quality that he says resonates in the Valley, where success requires “grit”. “We lost 2 funders and we kept 40... You don’t see the Democratic Party or Republican Party criticise us. They understand that what we are doing is helpful.”
He’s right that the response from DC has been more nuanced. The political establishment “hates being lectured, especially by Silicon Valley kids”, says one Washington lobbyist. The tech industry had been perceived “as aloof and naive”. FWD.us is changing that.
Green has a point when he says he’s been given a tough mandate: to bring together people that do not like to work together: “whether that’s Silicon Valley and DC or Republicans and Democrats”. His first year at the helm of FWD.us has certainly sparked plenty of debate.
Some think Silicon Valley would forgive him any number of Machiavellian tactics – if only his execution would improve. In June, the US Senate passed an immigration reform bill. If Green could help coerce Congress – the next step in the process – to back it, too, FWD.us would score a mighty victory. Personally, I wonder if his experience so far doesn’t serve as a kind of parable for activism in the digital age: social media makes it possible for mobs to form very quickly – but doesn’t that very speed seem to mitigate against the emergence of great leaders?
What Zuckerberg really thinks is anybody’s guess. If Green has annoyed plenty of people along the way – well, that might just remind Zuckerberg of their university days, when the two got into trouble for Facemash.
But Green says his old friend is in it for the long term. “I’ve known Mark longer than almost anyone else, and he’s an extremely morally driven person,” Green says. The Facebook tycoon doesn’t care about money, but is motivated by an obligation to stewardship, he adds. “You may not agree with him, but when Mark has a vision he carries it forward.”