This interview is excerpted from the ThinkUp Insights Interviews series, which asks some of the most influential and innovative people on the Internet about the future of social networking and social media. You can get the full Insights book with all of these interviews when you join ThinkUp.
Catherine Bracy has been bringing the grassroots spirit of community organizing to the world of technology for her entire career. Her current role at Code For America makes that explicit, where she’s Director of Community Organizing, leading a community that’s determined to improve the way our cities and governments work.
But even her earlier roles were grounded in the same mindset; During the 2012 presidential campaign, Bracy led the Obama campaign’s on-the-ground effort to engage with the technology community. Instead of merely fundraising from, or feeding the egos of, people who create technology, Bracy asked them to serve and participate.
Given her profound and long-held commitment to harnessing the power of technology to make our communities run better, we of course wanted to get Bracy’s insights into where these social technologies are headed. It was particularly gratifying to see how personal her vision was, especially when talking about the most fundamental things that social networking and social media enable.
"It’s not an original thought but I’m really amazed by the possibility of being forever connected to, or in contact with, anyone you’ve ever met in your life. There’s no such thing as ‘losing touch’ anymore. It’s super awesome and super scary at the same time."
When did you first realize that social networks were going to change how you live or work?
CB: I remember being super skeptical of Twitter when it first came out. One night in the end of 2006 or 2007 I was having a conversation with John Bracken and Ben Walker at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. Ben bet John that he wouldn’t be using Twitter in a month’s time. I was on Ben’s side. Then, another friend who was with us came back to our table excited that he’d just seen Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner in the lobby of the hotel and I remember thinking “oh my god, if I were using Twitter I would totally have run out to the lobby, taken a picture of them, an posted it.” I realized that this tool I thought was completely inane was also something I would totally use myself to post meaningless crap. Needless to say, Ben lost the bet to John and here we are, six years later, still posting inanities with gusto.
What moment or moments stand out to you as the most meaningful ones you’ve had online?
CB: Every birthday on Facebook is simply awesome.
I absolutely LOVE Twitter during Presidential debates. When I was working on the 2012 Obama campaign I remember being completely immersed in Twitter for every single one of them, from “9-9-9” to “horses and bayonets.” For the first debate of the general election when President Obama had a horrible performance, I had my back to the TV and my head buried in Twitter. I knew before anyone else in the room that this was a disaster for us; everyone who was just watching and listening without the benefit of the backchannel didn’t have nearly the level of dread that I had when it was all over.
If you could know one thing about the people you’re connected to online, what would it be?
CB: The last book they read that changed their life and how.
What do you wish the people you follow did more or less of online?
CB: I wish people had more of a sense of humor. Good rule of thumb (for Twitter especially): consider the possibility that the offensive tweet you’re reading is actually snark/satire before you send an indignant response.
What’s the big thing that’s missing from today’s social networks?
CB: Scratch and sniff.
We were totally inspired by the social and civic perspective Bracy offered to the tech industry in her talk earlier this year called “What Techies Need to Know About Politics”. It’s a must-watch for anybody that cares about either technology or politics.