Transforming democracy through digital technology

By Courtney Martin

I had the honor of hosting a panel on the "Power of Technology to Transform Democracy," sponsored by the Knight Foundation, at this year's annual TEDxWomen conference last weekend. There were 300 people at the event in Washington D.C. and more than 150 independently organized TEDx events in every time zone in the world—nearly 150,000 people total—tuning in via live stream!

Here are five of the smartest lessons I learned from the incredibly smart women flanking me on both sides:

1. It's not just you. No one's got it quite right yet.

If you're trying to innovate at the intersection of democracy (small d—not just voting, but just about everything else) and technology, and finding yourself struggling to manifest your big, shiny dreams, you're not alone.

The Knight Foundation's vice president, Paula Ellis, put it best: "We’ve seen several promising ideas take shape, but we aren’t quite there yet. We won’t in fact crack the golden egg until we move from using technology to fix potholes to tackling the larger problems of our day. Here’s the challenge: We know that online tools are good for sharing opinions and ideas—but they aren’t as good at enhancing the deliberative process. Yet." That's saying a lot from an entity that has invested $10 million in 24 projects over the last few years.

This great piece by Sarika Bansal in last weekend's New York Times underscores the fact that failure is a natural part of innovation. In it, Jill Vialet of Playworks advises leaders to fail “out loud” and “forward”—"meaning that the people involved in the failure should speak about it openly and work to prevent history from repeating itself." In this light, conversations like these are the key to pushing this field forward.

2. Don't build it. They won't come.

Too often, when we are thinking about building an "action platform," our first question is, "How can we get people to come to our site?" In fact, the question should be, "Where are people already?"
That's the wise question that Andrew Slack, founder of the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), asked, and it's been paying off big time ever since. HPA describes itself as "an army of fans, activists, nerd-fighters, teenagers, wizards, and muggles dedicated to fighting for social justice with the greatest weapon we have—love."

Lauren Bird, a recent NYU grad, is the creative media coordinator & vlogger for HPA, and she detailed how they manage to go into existing fan communities online and inspire people to take real world action by aligning with the powerful themes of the fans’ favorite books.



About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit