At first glance, a cynic might look at the just-announced March for Innovation and dismiss it with a pithy portmanteau: slacktivism. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Partnership for a New American Economy and leaders from the startup community are joining forces to press for immigration reform that brings in more high-skilled immigrants and helps foreigners start companies in the US, all by way of what the group is billing as “the largest ever virtual march on Washington.”
Today, the advocacy effort is just a website and a mission statement, but over the coming weeks, it will gather messages and Tweets from supporters in anticipation of sending a social media bombardment down on Congress over a 24-hour period in early April. The message: the tech industry and startup workers are united in calling for immigration reform that includes provisions to boost innovation and entrepreneurship. The collected Tweets and Facebook messages will be queued up and sent to members of Congress in one big hit using Thunderclap.
Malcolm Gladwell might be shaking his head right now. Gladwell, author of a New Yorker article insisting that the revolution will not be Tweeted, would be the first to argue that activism-by-social-media is about as meaningful and ephemeral as a 140-character message blasted into an immense network of vaporous voices can be. Other politically-minded critics might point to the “iMarch” as more evidence that Silicon Valley just doesn’t get Washington DC. Legislation is shaped and formed by politicians who respond to sustained public pressure, grassroots organizing, straight lobbying, and active and sustained face-to-face engagement, these people might point out. Tweets just ain’t going to do it.
Aware of the potential criticisms and sensitive to the charges of slacktivism, the organizers behind the initiative are prepared with an answer: We agree.
Jeremy Robbins, director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, says the social media aspect of the march forms a “very powerful complement” to lobbying work that’s already being done on the ground, but it won’t be an isolated tactic. “There’s no wrong way to push this,” Robbins says of the tech industry’s push for pro-innovation immigration reform. “We want to use Twitter, we want to use boots on the ground, we want to use phone calls, we want to use lobbying.” The organization will use every tool at its disposal.
Among those tools are the influential voices of key figures in the tech industry, including AOL co-founder Steve Case, the Foundry Group’s Brad Feld, venture capitalist Mike Maples, angel investor Ron Conway, Joe Green, the co-founder of Nationbuilder and co-chair of the March, Somesh Dash of Institutional Venture Partners (the other co-chair), and Joe Trippi, the former campaign manager of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Trippi is developing the social media content behind the march.
Of course, Mayor Bloomberg will also play a prominent role. He’s the one who started the Partnership for a New American Economy in the first place. Immigration reform is one of his key issues, not only because New York is a city of immigrants, but also because of his continuing efforts to position the city as a tech center. He sees the march as an opportunity to help change the often-frustrating federal law, says Robbins.
Beyond the 24-hour digital march, which will likely take place soon after Congress returns from its spring recess in early April, some of these people may testify in Congressional hearings or take part in briefings to put forward arguments for pro-innovation reforms, which would likely entail some combination of an increase in visas for high-skilled immigrants, a special visa for foreigners who graduate from an American university with an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (the so-called STEM visa), and a visa for foreign entrepreneurs who want to start a company in the US, have the financial backing to do so, and plan to hire Americans.
As the campaign advances, it will likely become more finely targeted, says Somesh Dash. Beyond the day of the digital march, the organizers will gather data and stories in an effort to convince the dozen-or-so holdout Republican senators that they should support comprehensive immigration reform if it includes the pro-innovation measures.
Dash says in its early stages, however, the march is about educating people about what is going on in the immigration debate and how it affects the tech industry. Says Dash: “iMarch is more than anything an education platform so smart American citizens can make up their own mind about what they think about [immigration reform].”
The digital march promises to be the biggest pan-industry response to legislation from the tech and startup communities since last year’s successful lobbying effort against the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Protect IP Act (SOPA and PIPA). In that case, the tech industry was a late arrival to the legislative process, entering the debate just in time to kill the bill but long after it been introduced in the first place. This time, the community is getting involved much earlier.
“It’s exciting to see the tech community weighing in on the issue of immigration reform and connecting with members of congress at a time when it matters most, early in the proposal-making process,” says Rachna Choudhry, co-founder of political advocacy platform Popvox and a former lobbyist for a Washington DC-based NGO. “When you think about how laws are made, it’s a lot like cement,” says Choudhry. “The longer you wait, the harder it is to change the final product. So weighing in early on has its strategic benefits.”
Getting involved early is also a good way of shedding the “slacktivism” tag. The challenge now will be in sustaining the advocacy energy for what is shaping up to be a long-haul debate.
Read our ongoing coverage of the immigration reform debate.
[Image Credit: alcebal2002 on Flickr]