ed_sharpe

When Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros frontman Alex Ebert arrived at the Sundance Film Festival last month, his plan was to participate in a panel, take in a few films, and have a good time with the tens of thousands of other revelers who descend on the mountain town every winter. Little did he know the he’d leave at the end of the weekend as the leader of a digital counterculture project born out of a social change-focused celebrity hackathon.

That project, known as SecondGov, is a virtual government that Ebert and his team hope will act as an open platform and forum for discussion, experimentation, and, ultimately, meaningful change. Ebert was inspired by the UK’s Shadow Cabinet, an alternate government made up of members of the opposition party whose responsibility is to criticize the policies and actions of the acting government and to offer alternative policies. Think of it like a hybrid of Second Life and Change.org.

Thanks to its victory at HackDance, SecondGov is being incubated by the University of Utah’s James Lee Sorenson Center for Global Impact Investing, giving the project access to award-winning economists, political scientists, technologists, and other intellectual and financial resources which stand to make it more than one celebrity’s half-baked idea. The team, which includes HackDance creator Travis Laurendine as a co-founder, has already recruited four full-time developers and is in the process of raising Seed funding (likely through a mix of traditional investment and donations). SecondGov is scheduled to launch publicly in a few weeks.

The idea is that real people will run for office, such as the “SecondGoverner of California,” campaigning and being voted on by citizens of real California. Much like how Change.org has given US citizens a place to organize support around individual causes and demand governmental response, Ebert hopes SecondGov can eventually draw enough attention that the real government will have to respond.

“What happens when the SecondGoverner of California gets more votes than Jerry Brown?” Ebert asks. “What then? I think they’d have to at least take his ideas seriously, if not consider him the real governor.”

It’s an idealistic notion but one that is not as impossible as it seems. Much like write-in candidates can receive meaningful vote totals while seeming to exist outside the mainstream political system, so too could a SecondGov candidate build support and outline their platform in an experimental virtual government, before entering the offline election. With the built in virality and simplicity of mobile voting, SecondGov could realistically drive non-trivial levels of engagement.

The closest thing we’ve seen to this concept in action may be Italy’s Five Star Movement, a populist political party started by activist, comedian, and blogger Beppe Grillo. One of the primary tools used by the party is YouTube, where candidates post short “campaign videos” and support is tallied through the website’s star-rating and comment systems.

The first “app” that will launch on top of the SecondGov platform is “The New IRS,” a project through which SecondGov participants will have the ability to dictate where their virtual tax dollars are allocated. Each participant will start with “100 percent” of their tax contributions and a pie chart outlining the current, real-world allocation to areas like education, infrastructure/public works, prisons, defense, etc. Participants will then reallocate as they see fit. On April 15, The New IRS will publicly release the data from the experiment in an effort to communicate the true wishes of the populace and illustrate the ways in which they differ from reality. With enough participation, the hope is that real change will ultimately result. A beta version of The New IRS will go live this Monday, March 10.

Ebert expects other applications to follow, many of which, he hopes, will be contributed by SecondGov participants. “I think of this like a record label that’s based around the distribution of ideas,” Ebert says. “The New IRS is just the first idea, the first act, but there will be more to follow.”

Ebert has always thought of himself as socially conscious, but not necessarily political. Like many Americans, he found himself feeling inspired and hopeful following Obama’s 2008 election but quickly was let down by the lack of true change that followed. Today, he’s consumed with pessimism and dissatisfaction.

“I can’t write a love song anymore,” he says. “Pessimism is good as counterculture, but when it becomes primary it creates stasis.”

Ebert continues, saying, “Our hope is that SecondGov becomes an institution, like the Shadow Cabinet, that exists to peaceably and safely vet ideas, challenge reality, and enact change. Currently, virtual reality and make believe are relegated to escapism. We want to turn it into an app that benefits reality. We hope to be like the cold water that wakes people up and galvanized participation.”

There are miles worth of road to cover between where SecondGov is today – simply a launch page inviting people to sign up for more information – and Ebert’s vision of it as a meaningful instrument of change in the political system. To cover that ground, Ebert will have to first build a team around the project that’s capable of taking over day-to-day operations. From there, the group needs to raise capital, finish building out the platform, and, most importantly, drive awareness and ultimately participation from the citizenry.

Collectively, that’s a tall order.

Given the scale of SecondGov’s ambitions, this participation will need to be significant and lasting, far from a sure bet for even the most compelling online offering – when was the last time anyone used MySpace? The involvement of 2013 Grammy award and 2014 Golden Globe winner Edward Sharpe certainly won’t hurt matters – except perhaps in terms of initially credibility – but as the saying goes, you can only lead a horse to water.

For SecondGov to work, people will need to decide that they want real change and that this is a viable avenue for achieving it. Fortunately, the political climate in the US could not be more ripe for alternatives. Look no further than the Occupy movement, the emergence of the Tea Party, and the historic levels of government dissatisfaction for proof of this fact.

Ebert may not be a full-time startup entrepreneur, but he’s not taking this project lightly. He spent the last two days in Los Angeles rubbing elbows with financiers and industry leaders at the Oasis: The Montgomery Summit conference. When I finally caught up with him for an interview, he was wrapping up a lengthy discussion of the project with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt.

SecondGov is a radical idea, yes, but it’s capturing the imagination of a number of smart and influential people. There’s plenty of work that remains to make this project as meaningful as Ebert and Laurendine aspire for it to be, but maybe, just maybe, it’s an idea whose time has come.

[Image courtesy Dan Smyth Photography]