NationBuilder & the Scottish National Party: An Interview with Kirk J. Torrance

inm_kirk.pngI recently Skyped with Kirk J. Torrance, who devised the Scottish National Party’s New Media Strategy and lead the digital campaign in the 2011 Scottish General Election. Kirk is now Executive Director at Industrial New Media Ltd; which helps large corporations, non-profits and political parties (including the SNP and the Scottish Independence Campaign) make the best use of new and emerging technologies.  We discussed his introduction to NationBuilder.com, the [political] ‘Revolution in Scotland’, and why NationBuilder is the campaign tool everyone has been waiting for (even if they didn’t realise it)…
 
I’d heard the podcast you’d done with Adriel Hampton about NationBuilder and the SNP.  I’d love to hear about how you first heard of NationBuilder and what your experience was. 
I’d worked in the film industry in LA, helping The Studios and companies use new media to be most efficient and productive in what they do.  I recall first hearing of Jim Gilliam when he was still at Brave New Films – I was interested the people-powered movie distribution model he was describing because I was working on a similar concept at the time.  I’d had the ambition to work directly with new and emerging filmmaking talent to crack open the industrial film complex by using new media technologies. Reimagining a more democratic model in the production of content rather than the status quo of the “Old Boys Club” exploiting filmmakers, who often chipped away for years in the hopes that one-day their projects would finally get green-lit.

I decided to come back to Scotland in late 2008 and eventually started working for the SNP in December 2009 as their New-Media Strategist. I was thinking through how we could maximise content creation around the upcoming UK and Scottish General Elections. Thinking through new strategies we could use, I came to think that the model of a film studio is quite analogous to that of a political party.  You have your in-house content, that you control and create and it’s gorgeous and professional but you also need a platform that allows your supporters to feel safe and supported in creating their own content - and if it’s of a sufficiently good quality, you take it and distribute it through official channels.  It’s a great model of content distribution, which inspires latent talent to get creatively involved in the debate whist giving them an opportunity to be showcased on a national platform. It’s a win-win situation…
 
When I finally reached out to Jim it was because he had just developed Act.ly - the twitter petition tool. I thought that it was just such a clever and innovative use of twitter.  He was also working on a project called Whitehouse 2.0 [an early version of NationBuilder] that was a novel crowd sourced policy development site that let people propose policy ideas and others to then vote on them. I reached out and said I’d like to do a similar thing in Scotland, but that project kind of fizzled out, as he was busy with his work, and I with mine.
 
Around October 2010, a couple months after finishing the written plans for the 2011 SNP New Media Strategy, I was looking for to piece together different components to build something like NationBuilder.  Then, coincidentally, I called Jim for a catch up and told him what I was looking for. He told be about all the developments he’d made to NationBuilder. When he showed it to me I felt that the planets had aligned… I said, “I need this right now”. The fact that it was still in the Alpha stage of its development cycle didn't phase me - I knew it was what we needed.
 
For that election for the SNP, was NationBuilder the primary CRM?
No, it was the platform on which we organised the digital outreach. The SNP has a system called ‘ACTivate’ which was developed in the run up to the 2007 Scottish Elections. It’s CRM the party built that has the voter roll, call and doorknock logs, etc. NationBuilder was connected on the backend, feeding into Activate.  However, NationBuilder as a platform has similar features which make it the ideal all-in-one solution…
 
Are SNP still using NationBuilder, are there plans to use NationBuilder in the gear up for the referendum on Scottish Independence?
The main SNP site is currently a Drupal instance, but NationBuilder is being considered for the Independence referendum campaign.  That will be a separate campaign launching in late May 2012, with the Referendum scheduled in late 2014.
 
So are you still at SNP?
I was on staff until after the election, and then I left to setup Industrial New Media.  The SNP remain a client, but I’m working with corporations, non-profits and other [non-UK] political parties. A significant focus is on commercialising some of my ideas through a Ventures subsidiary of INM with a view to bringing those resources into battle in the Referendum Campaign.
 
Did the SNP do a debrief afterwards on how they found NationBuilder? Did everyone love it or were there some haters?
The consensus was overwhelmingly positive, but let's not kid ourselves, NationBuilder wasn’t perfect - it was launched as a Beta product to the public during the election campaign, it was (and is) a work in progress and is very much evolving. One problem we found is that the backend takes users of traditional CMSs some time and training to get used to it. You need to know what you’re doing otherwise you can’t get the maximum benefit out if it. I liken it to a Formula 1 car – not everyone is going to be able to drive such a powerful machine. However, even if two very skilled strategists were let loose with NationBuilder, the winner would come down to who had the most skill and instinct.
 
Any moans about the platform are muted when compared to the carefully crafted and powerful set of features it has. Incidentally, NB has recently been injected with $6.5 Million dollars, which is a testament to Jim Gillian and Jesse Haff’s hard work and vision.  I was just talking to Jim recently about the NB development road map - the additional features on the horizon are very exciting; particularly the mobile apps they’re developing.
 
So, this is unrelated and you don’t have to answer this, but are you Scottish?
My accent doesn’t give anything away does it? I was born in Glasgow but grew up in Durban, South Africa. I've also lived in England and Los Angeles. But it’s an interesting question – it’s often said that (much like being and American), “Scottishness” is something an individual chooses, rather than something he or she has foisted on them by birth or through the bloodline. In fact, there’s a fantastic book written by a fellow countryman of yours, Arthur Herman, called, “The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scot’s Invention of the Modern World”. In the preface he says the following, “the point of this book is that being Scottish turns out to be more than just a matter of nationality or place of origin or clan or even culture. It is also a state of mind, a way of viewing the world and our place in it. It is a self-consciously modern view, so deeply rooted in the assumptions and institutions that govern our lives today that we often miss its significance…”. He also proposes that anybody in the modern world could define themselves as a Scot by virtue of subscribing to this modern view.
 
So, I am definitely a Scot.
 
INMLogo.pngWith Industrial New Media do you plan to use NationBuilder going forward?
Oh yeah, for sure.  Not only would I recommend it to any client, but the Industrial New Media website is being built on the NationBuilder platform. I just love the functionality, the simplicity. Let’s just say I’ve been doing web stuff since 1994 and I’ve evaluated countless CMSs and CRMs and frankly, I’ve just never been impressed before.

If you’d like an analogy then this is one… I was five years old the first time I got on a computer and remember being distinctly unimpressed with a little green flashing cursor and the confining command prompt. Compared to my awesome MacBook Air of today – that early experience is akin to the CMSs and CRMs of old… NationBuilder is a slick and powerful organising machine on a par with the thought and precision of any Apple product.
 
I’ll tell you something, if I were to sit down and build a content management system myself, NationBuilder would be it. Certainly the design and layout of the admin dashboard could be enhanced to make it more beautiful. But the features are exactly right because at the heart of it – you have Jim – a guy who really gets the potential of the Internet in empowering people to make changes in their world; the likes of which they’ve only ever dreamed of – until now that is...

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