Boyd, Wes and Pariser, Eli
Boyd, Wes and Pariser, Eli
c. 1981 • Camden, Maine
In the early 1990s Wes Boyd was flying high as a successful entrepreneur in the computer industry. He earned millions of dollars and made his way into the homes of thousands of PC users, all because of a popular screen saver that featured tiny winged toasters. But by the late 1990s Boyd had left his business behind, and was instead harnessing the power of the Internet as a means for political action. In 1998 he and his wife, Joan Blades, started MoveOn.org as a small-scale response to the impending impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Little did they know that they were starting an online political revolution. By the mid-2000s, after joining forces with a young activist named Eli Pariser, MoveOn supporters numbered in the millions and the organization itself had become what John Heilemann of Business 2.0 called "one of the country's most influential interest groups, both online and off."
The accidental activists
When Wes Boyd was growing up, he did not plan on changing the world, but he did envision himself working with computers. He was born in the early 1960s, and by the time he was fourteen years old he was hooked on computers and was considered something of a computer prodigy. Boyd attended college for a bit, but dropped out to pursue his passion—software design. For several years he worked as a programmer at the University of California at Berkeley. He then went on to design software for personal computer (PC) users who were blind or visually impaired. In 1987 he made the leap to entertainment software design when he formed his own company, Berkeley Systems, along with his wife, Joan Blades.
Boyd was the technical expert and served as the company's chief executive officer (CEO). Blades, who had previously worked as a professional mediator, took on the role of vice president of marketing. A mediator is someone who acts as a negotiator between two parties who are in dispute. Over the years Berkeley Systems grew into a leader in the entertainment software industry, producing such well-known online computer games as "You Don't Know Jack," a game show that challenged a player's knowledge of popular culture. Berkeley Systems' biggest claim to fame, however, was their line of screen savers, which are images that display on the screen when a computer is on but not in use. The company's most popular screen saver consisted of colorful winged toasters. Their business was so lucrative that by the late 1990s Boyd and Blades employed 150 people and were making yearly sales of approximately $30 million.
"Our goal is to make it impossible to ignore the anti-war sentiment in this country."
Eli Pariser, AlterNet, February 11, 2003.
In 1997 the couple sold Berkeley Systems for a reported $13.8 million, and settled down to enjoy a quiet, peaceful life in their comfortable home located in the Berkeley, California, foothills. That peace was short-lived. In 1998 the United States was rocked by scandal when President Bill Clinton (1946–) was accused of misconduct surrounding an affair he had with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The investigation and hearings dragged on for months and the president faced impeachment. In the United States, the House of Representatives has the power to bring formal charges (the power of impeachment) against a president that may lead to his removal from office; the Senate hears the case and makes the ultimate decision. Boyd and Blades, like many people, felt that the hearings had gone on for too long, that the president did not deserve to be impeached, and that politicians should get back to the real business of running the country.
The Ultimate Bake Sale
MoveOn.org uses the Internet to rouse its many members to action in a variety of ways. One of Eli Pariser's ideas was really a very simple one: have a giant bake sale. In April of 2004 Pariser put out a call on MoveOn.org's Web site, asking members across the country to host bake sales, the proceeds of which would go toward financing Senator John Kerry's bid for the presidency. Members responded in droves to the "Bake Back the White House" campaign, and on April 17 more than one thousand bake sales were held from Hawaii to Maine.
Over fourteen thousand creative bakers served up such treats as Beat Bush Brownies and Kerry Karamels, and by day's end, the cross-country bake sale had brought in approximately $750,000. Volunteers also passed out more than forty thousand Kerry flyers and worked to register voters. In an Associated Press story reported on cnews.com, Adam Ruben, a field director of the MoveOn PAC, explained: "We wanted to do a fund-raiser, but we wanted to do it fresher and with a twist. This is a great way to engage a lot of people who have signed a petition online but haven't done anything in their neighborhood."
In September of 1998 the couple decided to do something. They launched a Web site called MoveOn.org, which included a simple, one-line petition that read: "Congress must immediately censure President Clinton and Move On to pressing issues facing the country." They were essentially calling for a reprimand, not removal from office. Boyd and Blades then e-mailed the petition to one hundred of their friends, and invited them to add their names. "It was supposed to be a flash campaign," Boyd explained in Time. "We're in, we're out, we're fixed." The two ex-computer executives, however, were just getting started. Within a week, one hundred thousand people had signed the petition, and just a few months later, more than a half-million people had added their names. The response was so great that Boyd and Blades recruited volunteers via the Web, asking them to hand-deliver petitions to members of the House or to make calls to district offices.
President Clinton was impeached by members of the House of Representatives in a vote that went directly along party lines, meaning that the majority of Republican representatives voted for impeachment, while most Democrats voted against it. Clinton was found not guilty by the Senate in January of 1999, but the issue was not over for the members of MoveOn. In June of 1999 the organization established its own political action committee (PAC), a group that raises funds for political candidates who they feel will support its interests. In this case, the MoveOn PAC specifically worked against Republican candidates who had voted for impeachment. Donors were able to contribute online, and within five days of its launch, the MoveOn PAC brought in an astonishing $250,000.
By election day of 2000, the PAC had raised $2 million to help elect four new senators and five new congressional members—all Democrats. This was not the first time that an organization had used the Web to raise funds for candidates, and the amount raised, given the astronomical costs of campaigning, was not very large. But MoveOn had demonstrated that it was successful at reaching the small donor, considering that the average contribution they received was $35. "That may not seem like a lot of money to most people," Blades commented to Terrence McNally of AlterNet, "but it was a revolution in fundraising for campaigns from average citizens." MoveOn also proved that fundraising could be relatively inexpensive. Traditional fundraising is primarily done through direct mailings. In this case, there were no printing or postage costs; the biggest expense came from credit card transaction fees.
In less than two years MoveOn had evolved from an online petition site to an organization that influenced elections. It also began to branch out to focus on other issues, including gun control, environmental protection, and campaign finance reform. Although Boyd and Blades maintained control of the site, they did not control the issues. That was left up to the MoveOn members, who voiced their opinions through ActionForum.com, the site's Internet discussion forum. On the forum, visitors to the site comment on various subjects and offer suggestions for strategy, while other members rank the comments. The comments that receive the highest rankings move to the top and represent the opinions of the majority. MoveOn's priorities are based on this feedback. As Boyd explained to Heilemann, "We do deep listening to our base; we know where they are and what they want to do. We live and breathe response rates."
Pariser, the virtual peacenik
ActionForum became a hotbed of discussion, particulary following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Based on member feedback, MoveOn launched an online campaign calling for "justice, not escalating violence." Thousands of supporters responded. Boyd and Blades also noticed that other sites were popping up on the Web that shared their viewpoint, but one in particular, called 9-11Peace.org, caught their eye. It had been launched by a twenty-year-old young man named Eli Pariser.
Pariser was born in Camden, Maine, the son of two 1960s peace activists who went on to establish an alternative high school in their small harbor hometown. The Parisers introduced Eli to politics when he was very young, encouraging him to watch or listen to the news and explaining even the most difficult concepts to him. As he told Heather Salerno of the Westchester, N.Y., Journal News, "When I heard something on the radio about ... nuclear war, I asked and they gave me a straight answer." At age nineteen, Pariser graduated from Simon's Rock College, a progressive school located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He briefly considered a career in law after being accepted by the University of Chicago, but instead decided to go to work designing Web pages. His career as a Web designer was cut short by the events of September 11.
Like Boyd and Blades a decade earlier, Pariser wanted to make his voice known. He created an online petition at his Web site that advocated a peaceful response to the terrorist attacks and urged President George W. Bush (1946–) and members of Congress to use "moderation and restraint." Pariser initially e-mailed the link to his site to thirty of his friends; his friends forwarded the link to their friends, and within two weeks more than five hundred thousand people from around the world had added their names to the petition. The site caused such a global buzz that Pariser began receiving calls from news organizations that wanted to know more about the lanky young man. Pariser also received a call from Wes Boyd, who offered advice and financial support. As Pariser told Salerno, "Eli was in the same place as we were when we got started. We got in touch and said, 'Can we help?'"
Boyd did more than help. Not long after, he invited Pariser to merge Web sites and he hired the young activist to become MoveOn's director of international campaigns. Since then, Pariser has become the public face of the organization, appearing at rallies and providing interviews to the press, while Boyd is the organization's president and Web mastermind. According to John Heilemann, MoveOn's co-founder is much more comfortable behind the scenes, offering his technical expertise and tending to the business side of things. As Boyd told Heilemann, MoveOn is a "service business providing connection to the political process, using technology as a lever." Joan Blades serves on the board of directors of MoveOn and is a full-time volunteer.
The power of advertising
Since Pariser joined the organization, MoveOn's membership has nearly tripled. According to 2004 figures, approximately 2.25 million people from around the world are registered members. Pariser spent long hours, sometimes up to eighteen hours a day, making sure that these members were heard and that their concerns were turned into action. He continued to make use of online petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and political fund-raising ($3.5 million was raised for the 2002 congressional elections), and also launched dynamic new initiatives, several of which involved face-to-face activism and grassroots organizing—meaning organizing at the local level. In particular, Pariser and members of MoveOn rallied extensively around a single issue: to prevent an invasion of Iraq by U.S. troops. In the wake of September 11, the U.S. government had purportedly linked the terrorist attacks of September 11 to Saddam Hussein (1937–), the leader of Iraq.
MoveOn became so powerful that it was eventually able to break into traditional areas of advertising, including print, radio, and television. Such advertising is traditionally off-limits to smaller nonprofit groups because the cost of advertising is incredibly expensive. In December of 2002 Pariser asked MoveOn members to donate $40,000 to pay for a full-page ad in the New York Times that would feature an anti-war appeal. Within a few days, the contributions totaled nearly $400,000. With the extra money, the organization was able to pay for additional anti-war spots on radio and television that appeared in thirteen cities across the United States. The thirty-second televised spot was particularly controversial, and some channels, including CNN, Fox, and NBC refused to air it. Called the Daisy ad, it was a remake of a famous ad that appeared during the 1964 presidential race between Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973) and Barry Goldwater (1909–1998). Both ads feature a young girl plucking petals from a daisy while the threat of nuclear war looms in the distance.
Despite MoveOn's efforts, the United States invaded Iraq in March of 2003, and MoveOn turned its attention toward the 2004 elections and the removal of George W. Bush from office. The organization threw its support behind John Kerry (1943–), the Democratic candidate for president, and took the art of ad campaigning one step closer to the average citizen by creating a unique contest called "Bush in 30 Seconds." The contest invited people to submit homemade thirty-second commercials critiquing a Bush administration policy. More than 1,500 people entered the contest, which was judged online by thousands of MoveOn members. The ultimate winner was chosen by a panel of celebrities, including documentary filmmaker Michael Moore (1954–).
The winning commercial, called "Child's Play," received wide exposure on the Internet, and was broadcast on several television networks. CBS, however, refused to air it during the 2004 Super Bowl, claiming it was too controversial. In mid-2004, MoveOn went to the experts to launch a flurry of anti-Bush ads that were televised and run in theaters as movie trailers. Such Hollywood heavyweights as film director Rob Reiner (1947–), writer Aaron Sorkin (1961–), and musician Moby (1965–), were only too happy to oblige. As Reiner commented to Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, "We're all on [MoveOn's] e-mail list and we know how effective they are. When they ask us to play a role in getting rid of President Bush, you jump to the task."
Word of mouse
MoveOn had not gone Hollywood, however. Before any of the commercials were broadcast, MoveOn members were asked for their approval. And according to commentators, such tactics have contributed to the organization's amazing success. Despite how large their membership base had become, Boyd and Pariser remained tied to the group's original goal: to provide a voice for ordinary citizens. Their success was also attributed to the no-frills simplicity of their organization. MoveOn has only a handful of staff members, and there are no offices. Employees work out of their homes and connect through e-mail and occasional telephone conferences. Pariser operates out of New York City, from a closet-sized room in an apartment he shares with four roommates and two cats.
By the mid-2000s, MoveOn had grown from a simple idea to become one of the most powerful political forces in the United States. Politicians were sitting up and taking notice, and the rest of the world had realized that Boyd and Pariser were pioneers in a new frontier of online politicking. Hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised in mere hours and, more important, millions of voices had a quick and easy outlet for action. For Boyd and Pariser, this was the future of politics, and it was all accomplished through word of mouse.
For More Information
Taylor, Chris, and Karen Tumulty. "MoveOn's Big Moment: How an Activist Website with Just Seven Staff Members and No Office is Changing Internet Politics." Time (November 24, 2003).
"Anti-Bush Group Organizes Bake Sales across the U.S.A. to Raise Money." cnews.com (April 17, 2004). http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/WeirdNews/2004/04/17/426758-ap.html (accessed on July 22, 2004).
Brownstein, Ronald. "Tapping Talent, Not Just Names." Los Angeles Times (July 4, 2004). http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-na-moveon4jul04,1,6080074.story?coll=la-home-headlines (accessed on July 15, 2004).
Hazen, Don. "Moving On: A New Kind of Peace Activism." AlterNet (February 11, 2003). http://www.alternet.org/story/15163 (accessed on July 15, 2004).
Heilemann, John. "Looking for Democracy's Next Big Thing." Business 2.0 (July 2004). http://www.business2.com/b2/web/articles/0,17863,655745,00.html (accessed on July 15, 2004).
Markels, Alex. "Virtual Peacenik." Mother Jones (May/June 2003). http://www.motherjones.com/news/hellraiser/2003/05/ma_379_01.html (accessed on July 15, 2004).
McNally, Terrence. "MoveOn as an Instrument of the People." AlterNet (June 25, 2004). http://www.alternet.org/story/19043 (accessed on July 19, 2004).
MoveOn Web site: Democracy in Action. MoveOn.org. http://www.moveon.org (accessed on July 15, 2004).
Salerno, Heather. "Eli Pariser May Be Only 23, But He's Helping Change the Nation's Political Panorama." Journal News (Westchester, New York) (April 18, 2004). http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0418-02.htm (accessed on July 15, 2004).