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IP: Got a Cause and a Computer? You Can Fight City Hall

From: [email protected]
Subject: IP: Got a Cause and a Computer? You Can Fight City Hall
Date: Sat, 03 Oct 1998 10:17:14 -0500
To: [email protected]

Source:  New York Times

October 3, 1998

Got a Cause and a Computer? You Can Fight City Hall


AUSTIN, Texas -- Bill Clinton seems to have generated the most
petitions, calling for him to be impeached, to resign, to be left
alone. Thirteen people have signed one demanding a ban on tigers and
other exotic cats as pets. Eight favor the establishment of areas in national
parks for nudists. But a petition demanding statehood for New York City
attracted not a single signatory, not one, not even Donald Trump. 

In that dark epoch between the discovery of fire and the discovery of the
World Wide Web, the Bolsheviks had to storm the Winter Palace to get
their point across. 

Now it can all be done with the gentle click of a mouse button. 

"I got the idea when I was sitting at home in Austin watching a city
council debate on cable television," Alex Sheshunoff, 24, said. "The issue
they were discussing was very important, but the debate was really
boring, enough to induce narcolepsy. I started wondering: How can you
get citizens involved in the democratic process when they don't have time
to spend three hours at a city council meeting waiting to make a
three-minute statement?" 

His answer: E-The People, which describes itself as "America's
Interactive Town Hall" and resides in cyberspace at

Those who find their way to the Web site, either directly or through one
of the newspapers or nonprofit agencies that are Sheshunoff's partners,
are given the chance to sign a petition already posted on the site, create a
new petition or write a letter to government officials about whatever is
stuck in their craw. 

"There have been a lot of people talking recently about the intersection of
democracy and the Internet," Sheshunoff said, "but not a lot of people
sitting down and writing the code. That's where we come in." 

E-The People has been open since August but is still trying to "stomp out
the last of the bugs," Sheshunoff said, and should be fully operational in a
month or so. 

The Web site, which also bills itself as "an Alex Sheshunoff Initiative," is
designed to connect citizens with their government officials, local or
national, and to turn a profit for Sheshunoff and his investors. 

For example, a Houston resident interested in protesting about the
environment is led through a process of identifying whom he should
contact (a click calls up a list that includes the governor, lieutenant
governor, city council representative, 26 state representatives, eight state
senators and 20 agency officials with specific responsibility for the

Then the resident can compose a message that is automatically sent as
e-mail to whichever officials are selected, or as a fax, if the recipient has
no e-mail address. It is all free for the petitioners and letter writers.
Advertisers and media partners pay the freight. 

Messages can also be sent to the White House or to Congress,
Sheshunoff said, but the central intent is to address local issues. 

"The president already received a half-million e-mails a month, but for a
city council member to receive 10 letters on a single subject can have a
real impact," he said. "This is really about local people solving local

The letters are treated as private mail, Sheshunoff said. E-The People
takes no note of their content and promises it will sell none of the
demographic data that might be collected in the process. 

Sheshunoff's initiative operates from an office on the 19th floor of a tower
in downtown Austin, part of a suite of offices that are home to Alex
Sheshunoff Management Services, the company run by his father, a
well-known banking consultant. 

The younger Sheshunoff prowled his small room recently, a thatch of
sandy hair brushing his forehead, occasionally grabbing for a purring
cellular telephone while a team of young programmers hunched over
keyboards frantically tapping in data. An American flag dominated one
wall while a map of the United States filled another, showing the route of
an 80-city transcontinental bus tour that Sheshunoff has been running to
spread the word. 

The bus, decorated to resemble a mailbox, left Austin on Aug. 1 and has
made its way across the Southwest, up the Pacific Coast and across the
prairies into the Midwest, New England and New York. It is heading
south on its return to Texas. 

So far, 45 newspapers have agreed to go into partnership with E-The
People, meaning they will feature a link to the site on their own Web
pages and share with E-The People any advertising revenues generated
by surfers traversing that link. Among those signed up are The San
Antonio Express-News, The Oregonian in Portland and The Daily News
in New York. Sheshunoff is hoping for 100 media partners. 

Sheshunoff once considered a career in network television. While a
student at Yale, he did some work for ABC News, as a production
assistant and then reading his own short, personal essays in the wee
hours. Then he read somewhere that the audience for network television
news had dropped 30 percent since 1990. 

Sheshunoff said he spent his senior year "thinking about where news was
going." This led him, as it has hundreds of others in his generation, to the

His first effort was an online magazine developed as a way of allowing
readers to pinpoint the restaurants and other venues nearest their homes.
"We sold some of that underlying technology to newspapers and others,
for their Web pages," he said. 

A similar process is used in E-The People, he said, but it is more

"It's not as easy as it sounds," he said, "to take somebody's address and
tell them who their elected officials are." 

 Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
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