How Pete Seeger Helped Build the NY Tech Community and Saved the Internet

We became the best, most powerful startup community in the world by focusing on getting people together, not the institutions that pulled us apart.

January 28, 2014   

When you bring people together for any purpose whatsoever you're in politics. You can bring them together to drink beer, or watch a football game, but you're affecting the body politic. - Pete Seeger.

Since there wasn't a vibrant public Internet in the late 80s and early 90s - making records of our every move hard to find - many of you won't believe that I was the saxophone player and occasional vocalist for one of Cincinnati's hottest folk bands.

Of all the songs my family band played, by far the most fun for us - and our audience - was Sailin' Up, Sailin' Down, by Pete Seeger.

Sailin' Up is about an effort Pete lead through his Hudson River Sloop Clearwater project. In that effort, Pete brought attention to the once polluted Hudson River simply by sailing his sloop, the Clearwater, up and down the river, holding gatherings and mini-concerts that brought people together. Once a year, he hosted the Clearwater Festival and got even more people gathering along the Hudson River.

Eventually they got the Hudson cleaned up, helping make New York the attractive modern city that it is today.

The quote I lead this story with comes from the lead into Pete's greatest recording of the song that I know of: the Precious Friends concert he did with Arlo Guthrie. Thanks to the power of technology you can now listen to the recording below (or if you must, here).

Meetup and the Body Politic

People feel a need to commiserate or get together and talk about what's important to them. Our biggest categories are moms, small business, health support and fitness. - Scott Heiferman, 2009 in the NY Times

That concert was one of many times Pete educated people on the ability to affect the body politic just by gathering together. It was a simple yet incredibly empowering idea: by simply occupying the same space, even if just for a beer or sports game, we're changing the world we live in.

And it was an idea that inspired millions of people.

No one I know in technology has been more inspired by these types of community ideas than Meetup founder Scott Heiferman. Founded after 9/11, Meetup's mission is to change the world for the better by getting people together, in person. Scott wanted to make the world a better place, but not by forcing people to get together to make the world a better place. Scott followed the school of Seeger and made a platform for people to get together just because - because they all liked dogs, or because they loved photography, or because they were interested in new technology.

Meetup was born to affect the body politic by bringing people together. It was simple, incredibly powerful, and the start of a very good thing. A few years after founding the company, Scott would use the platform to found the organization I now preside over, and which has probably had a greater impact on the development of the NY tech community than any other group or initiative in the past 10 years: the NY Tech Meetup.

How Decentralization of the Body Politic Became NY Tech Meetup's Mantra

I first realized the connection between Pete Seeger's teachings and Scott's community organizing work after seeing a series of tweets and blog posts from Scott right around the time Obama was inaugurated in January of 2009. Of course the evidence was there from the start.

Scott's mantra of "get to the demo!" I felt was rooted in an idea that we all bring something to the table, but shouldn't hide behind an ability to speak or fancy slides. Also, Scott would just open the floor to anyone after the demos were done. Charlie O'Donnell once got up to talk how the NY Tech Meetup (NYTM) itself was falling short in certain areas and he founded nextNY by siphoning off NYTM members right there on the spot.

So, coming to the realization that Scott and Pete Seeger, whether consciously or not, had something to do with our tech community's story was not surprising. Also not so surprising was my attraction to it: Weeks before Obama's inauguration, and Scott's tweets about Seeger, I had won an election of my own, to take the reins of NYTM from under Scott's steady hands. I had gathered with the group for 2 years, leaving my own small impression along the way. Organizing was in the air.

The way I "won" that election is not as straightforward as you'd think, and has everything to do with how Pete Seeger's methodology changed NY Tech.

Then, and still today, NY Tech Meetup was the largest Meetup in the world. I attended most every NY Tech event during my early days of NY tech community organizing, but my loyalty back then was to a smaller, decentralized group called nextNY - the group Charlie started.

But, after coming home to New York from working on Obama's historic '08 campaign, the community was knee deep in a discussion about who should lead the NY Tech Meetup into the future (Scott had decided it needed fresh blood), and so, fresh from the campaign trail, I lent some ideas.

I was worried that folks eager to take NY Tech Meetup out from Scott's hands all wanted to make the group into a monolithic, all-powerful organization. I knew we were at a turning point in NY tech's history - Foursquare was still a hacked-together beta on 25 phones, Tumblr's team was less than 7 people, and Google had to write rent checks for their NY office - and with the right stewardship I also knew the NY Tech Meetup could either channel or squander the potential we were building.

In that Power Alley post, I summarized some of my thoughts:

Unless the next Organizer's rallying cry - and only rallying cry - is to coordinate, she or he will flail and flounder, drunk with ideas of "bigger" and "new."

If there is a single plank in the next Organizer's platform branded with the words "new" or "more," I advise the Meetup's members to stay away, unless those words are followed by the word "coordination."

Finally, in the end, I don't think it matters all that much. Though I am a loyal and loving member of the New York Tech Meetup, I believe such coordination will occur through it, with it, or without it. While I hope, and will vote, that the next Organizer has the capacity to embrace and drive this coordination, I am confident it will happen regardless.

Coordination, to me, meant more people getting together, not more institutions trying to make things happen on their own. It meant empowering people already in our community, rather than trying to do more for them as a service. It meant preserving a platform where Charlie O'Donnells of the future could use the stage to siphon and build anew.

Soon after posting that essay, Scott called me. I didn't know Scott had my phone number, much less read my blog, so when he called to say he wanted to talk about what I wrote I was fairly stunned (enough to remember I was on the corner of Bowery Street and Delancey Street, right where it turns into Kenmare St, and that it was really cold out).

In that phone call, Scott asked me to run in the election for Organizer and, after meeting with him in person soon thereafter, I acquiesced. I wanted to found a new startup within the following few months, and running this organization could only be a pro-bono side project, I explained. But, in some way, we both knew it could only thrive as an organization at that stage if it was run that way.

With Scott's call to action (helped, of course, by this tremendously gracious post by Charlie O'Donnell), I threw my hat into the ring.

After I won the election, I got right to work on building coalitions across different segments of the NY tech community, and spent a lot of time with Scott and Dawn (Scott's first NTYM attendee-turned-co-founder) strategizing on how we could expand and solidify the organization's mission. Within a year we had become a 501(c)6, gathered a tremendous Board, and dedicated a quarter of our board seats to be chosen by our community.

As Scott and I spoke about our vision for the NY tech community in those months following the election, I remember taking a moment to geek out about that iconic performance of This Land is Your Land, sung by Pete, Bruce Springstein, and Pete's grandson Tao Seeger (who is a tremendous talent in his own right). Inspired, I took a ride down to the inauguration with the Meetup team.

When it Counts

Photo by NY Tech Meetup member Austin Bryan

Pete told us that the simple act of getting together affected the body politic. So, for months we plodded on, meeting up every month, watching interesting demos, building new relationships.

It sorta felt like we were affecting the body politic. VCs and their money started pouring into the city, as Valley and Boston firms clamored to open up shop here. Investments grew here while they stalled elsewhere. Money is the body politic, right?

Around the middle of 2009, some of the smartest folks I knew from the West Coast uprooted themselves and their brains and came to be a part of our New York community. Changing where smart people live and build companies is changing the body politic, right?

As time passed, NY tech's importance in innovation and cultural industries cemented itself. Stories changed from how New York could be like Silicon Valley to why New York was better. Thing had changed. We had affected the body politic.

But, we had no idea how much more we could do.

In mid to late 2011, there was a steady-yet-quiet drumbeat coming from mission-driven startups like Reddit, Tumblr, and tech interested non-profits like Democracy Now and EFF: Two pieces of legislation - SOPA and PIPA - were moving at uncomfortably quick rates in Congress and there was too little objection to them from the tech community.

Reddit and Tumblr lead the most visible charges with early phone-a-thons. Intellectually and technically savvy VCs like Brad Burnham sounded the alarm in the financial community. Luminaries like the late Aaron Swarz started organizing from the non-profit side of things. Niche media outlets like TechPresident started blogging semi-frequently about it.

To these people, the threats of the legislation was clear, and the risk that it would actually get adopted was appropriately gauged. To most of the rest of us (certainly me), these issues seemed obscure, "they would handle themselves," and a distraction from our every day work.

But, then things changed. In late December 2011 and early January 2012 hearings for these bills got put on the calendar in a way that meant it was for real, and the for the rest of us the sounds of our Reveres got increasingly shrill in a way that made us know it was time.

The Powers that Be were coming. Sound the alarm.

The weeks leading up to January 18th, 2012 were a blur of Organizing.

Right after the New Year everyone finally knew something big needed to be done to stop this legislation, but nothing concrete or truly transformative seemed to be happening. A lightly coordinated "Internet blackout" was scheduled for the 18th, but for the rest of us - The People without big websites - things were still unclear. How can we really stop this?

Andrew Rasiej, our Chairman and probably one of the most connected people in the world of tech policy, saw that the moment was upon us and offered to*

[*Editors note as of Aug 29, 2022: I found this post in my drafts and everything above and below are verbatim what I wrote in 2014. Unfortunately, I do not know what my next paragraph as was going to be or how I was going to end my comment about Andrew. I've decided to post everythin unchanged with this note: I'm sure I was about to give Andrew a lot of credit for being able to bring all of the people together required to pull off what we did. Outside Senator Schumer and Gillibrand's offices we had thousands of members gathered. We had speakers from many organizations. Entrepreneurs. Shouts from the crowds. Soon after that day, the bill failed. Following the theme of what I wrote in 2014: We had affected the body politic.]

We Continue in Pete's Honor

This week, Pete Seeger died. Next week, as a way to honor him, we'll do what's been done for nearly 10 years, and get together as a community. I don't know what magic will come from it, or how the body politic will change on that night, but every time we get together, magic does seem to happen. People meet. Teams start. Ideas spread. The powerful play goes on and the body politic changes.

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