“I’ll do X but only if N other people will do Y”
I was abuzz.
A cafe in Holborn. 2003. A secret meeting. James Cronin and Tom Loosemore, who’d made the genius does-what-it-says-on-the-tin FaxYourMP, bought me coffee and changed my world.
Wow, there’s actually other people who think computers can revolutionise democracy!
And they’ve an amazing top secret, ludicrously ambitious project to repurpose the whole of Hansard to make Parliament easy for the masses.
A little later, Tom Steinberg launched mySociety with a brilliant call for proposals. You can still read the entries here. But despite my already high ambient level of excitement, the one that I loved the best was PledgeBank.
Go and read the original proposal now.
It now seems strange, but once we got the money and started building WriteToThem, all I wanted to do was get on and build PledgeBank.
I’ve never been really left or right wing. And what is brilliant about PledgeBank (and indeed all mySociety sites) is that both people who love Government and people who love business, love it.
The reason I liked PledgeBank was, in economic terms, simple. Typically, we either act alone by voluntarily buying something selfish for ourselves, or we let Government use the threat of violence to take money from us and spend it for our collective benefit. The former lacks scale, the latter lacks an immediate link to needs.
But with PledgeBank, you agree to do something collective, but only if lots of other people will too! Best of both worlds. The thing you do is voluntary, and yet magically it also has the power of impact of masses of people doing it! Lovely.
I’m sure there were several .com bubble startups using collective action, but by 2003 none were very noticeable – there was nothing obvious on the Internet that used this amazing collective action idea.
It was obviously going to change the world.
And yet, it failed.
That might seem a bit harsh for something that created Britain’s preeminent digital rights NGO, that kicked off the first wave of invasion of New Hampshire by libertarians, and that even now has successful pledges every week, and is altering the relationship between city and citizen in Barnet.
At first it might seem like a bit too much chutzpah to even compare PledgeBank to GroupOn and Kickstarter.
It’s not though – long after PledgeBank launched, Andrew Mason (CEO of GroupOn) started out by making a very similar site called The Point. It tried to organise collective action consumer boycotts. The Point even tried to buy out (er., merge with) PledgeBank to kill the competition (we were too hippy to accept).
Eventually they tried GroupOn as a sub-experiment, and it flew. GroupOn is collective action – it started out basically as streamlined pledges of the form “I, a restaurant owner, will give a 50% discount but only if 20 people will come try out my restaurant”.
It’s also not like we tried nothing making PledgeBank. We iterated with unstoppable passion to try to get it to take off.
We had pledge signing by SMS, automatically generated PDF posters, translation into a dozen languages, pledges in dozens of countries, beautifully copy edited hassle emails, local geographic search alerts, cobranded sites for companies and charities, geocascading pledges, Facebook integration… All back in 2005-2007.
So, what do you think? What went wrong?
Why did GroupOn and Kickstarter succeed, when PledgeBank failed?
Your thoughts in the comments.
This is the first post in a two part series. Read why I think it failed in part 2.