Most people know how to use computers, but far fewer know how they work and even fewer are capable of writing the coded instructions that form the basis of every program, website and application.
There’s an effort to change that, and it could be a boon to political campaigns. This year has been dubbed “code year,” and a website called Codecademy.com has been created to teach beginners the basics.
Codecademy is the creation of a couple of recent Columbia University grads who describe the Internet as “an incredible recruiting force for political campaigns or revolutions," suggesting those who know code can change the world.
“People who know how to program computers … are more efficient with time. They can do more work more quickly. They are just from a market perspective more efficient,” says Ryan Bubinski, one of the site’s founders.
"Computers are these universal tools. They are kind of like a meta tool,” Bubinski said, “in that you can write programs to do anything you want the computer to do and the computer will follow those instructions. If you don't know how to create those tools, then you are subject to the power or the prejudices of the people who make the tools themselves. ... So it’s empowering to know how to code.”
It can also be lucrative. The Internet has become a crucial part of every political campaign. Once, political campaigns were almost strictly a ground war, involving grass-roots efforts, going door to door, shaking hands, kissing babies, holding rallies, lobbying potential voters in person.
In the 20th century, the air war became critical, with radio and TV ads reaching millions of potential voters.
Now, the cyberwar is the new front, and young people are being hired to run the Web side of campaigns. Fresh-out-of-college 20-somethings who used to collect signatures and work the phones are now in charge of entire divisions, writing the code and building the sites and apps that helps deliver a candidate’s message to far wider audiences.
"A campaign that is unable to communicate using Facebook, Twitter and the variety of other tools is going to completely fail," public relations expert Mike Thompson said. "The importance of YouTube, the importance of blogs, the importance of websites can't be overstated."
More than a million people have already signed up to learn code since Codecademy launched in August, according to its founders. One of them is blogger Andrew Martin, who learned the language of computers in college but used the program to brush up on his skills and create a politically oriented website called Voterec.com, designed to improve on traditional campaign strategies and tactics.
"Getting people to be active in their own social networks” is the key, Martin said. Helping them “contact their friends and family and convince them to vote for their candidate, convince them to get out and vote. Those are very powerful social recommendations.
“And so we are trying to get at the idea off what are those social connections, what is most valuable, what insights can you glean from your social network online that would have an impact and would be particularly important to you in making a political decision, who to vote for, to form a view on a public policy, that type of thing."
Codecademy hopes more people will sign up and learn and follow Martin’s example, and there’s no charge for the courses. “You shouldn't have to pay for an education," Bubinsky said.