When Faced With a Busy Signal, One Activist Turned a Music App Into a Tool for Democracy
Just after the inauguration in January 2017, Nathaniel Teichman, chief operating officer of an audio sharing app, went to a rally for Planned Parenthood in Washington Square Park in New York City. He saw a problem. Activists who called the offices of their representatives in Congress became stuck on hold and had to endure long waits before they could voice their messages.
“It seemed like there had to be a way to use technology to make it easier for people to take part in the democratic process,” said Teichman, 30, who studied business at Columbia University.
Since graduating, Teichman had wanted to pair his business background with his passion for music. In 2015 he began working for Venmo co-founder Iqram Magdon-Ismail on an app called Ense. It functions like an audio version of Twitter allowing musicians to share sound clips. After the election of President Donald J. Trump inspired Teichman to political action, he wondered if Ense’s model could be repurposed so that citizens could share their personal stories with their representatives.
In early 2017 he began working pro-bono on nights and weekends with collaborators, Aneesh Bhoopathy and Phil Ditzler, whom he met through Ense. With “a little bit of computing magic and a little bit of manual labor,” he said, they co-founded the app Stance. It delivers audio clips, many of them wrenching testimonials, from users’ mouths straight into representatives voicemails.
For the activist on the go, Stance means no more navigating automated phone prompts, no more waiting on hold, and no more being unable to get through when call volumes run at flood levels. During the House vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, for example, some 7,000 new people used Stance to make themselves heard.
“It’s using audio sharing technology to get people more involved,” said Randy Lee, 50, a partner at Limebeat Studios in Manhattan, who also collaborated with Teichman.
Since its launch in early March, more than 20,000 people have downloaded Stance on their iPhones and Androids, Teichman said. All of them have the choice to also have their audio messages publicly tweeted at their representatives. When New York City-based web designer Ryan Giglio chose this in late March, because he was worried about a bill that could weaken internet privacy, his representative, Democrat Carolyn Maloney, tweeted back at him.
“I think the app is great, it’s a great low-friction way of participating in a very high-friction system,” Giglio said.
In an e-mail, Maloney said, “Any new technology that better enables constituents to reach out to their representatives is a change for the better.”
She’s not the only member of Congress learning about Stance. In Montana, Democratic Senator Jon Tester began fielding questions from reporters about the new ways he is hearing from his constituents through apps like Stance and Countable.
“It doesn’t matter if it is through an app, mail, e-mail, phone or fax, people should always be able to contact their representation,” Tester e-mailed. “As technology advances, it’s critical that members of Congress are able to hear from their constituents in as many ways as possible.”
Teichman said Stance will continue to develop, particularly with the aim of making it easier for congressional staffers to tally and catalog users’ concerns. Teichman also hopes that with enough people choosing to publicly tweet their audio clips, new data sets can emerge to help fact-check public officials.
“Politicians always say when they cast their votes that they’re just representing the will of their constituents,” he said. “This allows us to say, ‘Well, actually we have 300 of your constituents who say the opposite.’”
A lesson he takes from his experience founding Stance is that in entrepreneurship it is helpful to find a previously unaddressed problem that can be solved by repurposing and modifying a tool that already exists. It’s how he got from the music collaboration idea at the heart of Ense to Stance, an idea that that allows more of the collaboration that is at the heart of representative democracy.
“Everyone’s trying to do something right now,” Teichman said. “This is what we can do.”