With divisive issues like gay marriage, the war in Iraq and immigration reform permeating our daily lives, it seems like everyone has an opinion on today's contentious political climate.
So where can the politically minded turn for a worthy debate? The new online social network Essembly.com provides a place for political junkies and newbies alike to weigh in on topics ranging from social security to the relative hotness of Ann Coulter and Hillary Rodham Clinton without alienating friends or arguing until they're blue in the face.
The brainchild of recent Harvard graduate Joe Green, Essembly fuses the now-familiar MySpace-style social-networking setup with political discussion. Through the free site, members can debate topics, find people with similar political ideologies and form groups.
"The most basic level of an action that's grass-roots in nature is a bunch of people finding each other, getting together and doing something," Green said. "In the end, it's all about getting people to join you."
The idea for Essembly — which is strictly nonpartisan — was conceived in 2003 while Green was volunteering for the New Hampshire primary elections. Observing the budding social-networking scene and encouraged by the success of Mark Zuckerman, his college roommate, in founding Facebook.com, Green set out to realize his vision for an online community built around a specific topic: political debate.
"I worked on some campaigns and noticed that people come for the candidate, but stay for each other and the social cohesion," said Green of his experiences in campaign offices. "Essembly is a place where people can find each other, get connected and stay interested in campaigns and groups. And individuals can sort of tap into that energy and mobilize it."
Still in its beta phase, Essembly is a work-in-progress with 14,000 members after approximately three months live on the Web. Green admits his project is up against one significant obstacle networks like Facebook aren't: "We're trying to get people interested in politics," he said. "That's not always an easy thing to do."
Indeed, despite an upsurge in youth voting in the 2004 election, the 18-to-24 demographic still trailed others in voting activity with a 47 percent turnout, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
Citing a study by Harvard University, Green posited that the problem isn't apathy, but a lack of faith in politics — and the absence of a familiar forum in which young people can express their opinions.
"Students care about changing the world, but they don't really see politics as a way of doing that," Green said. "It's not something that they're comfortable with, and they don't think that people are listening to them. But if you create something like Essembly, people can at least have the ability to be presented with the information."
So how does Essembly attract users? By offering familiar tools, social-networking capabilities and the opportunity to comment freely on a wide variety of issues.
Essembly incorporates standard social-networking features, but with a twist. In addition to friends, members also have political allies and nemeses. Determined by profiles and voting tendencies on the site, political allies are users with whom a particular member shares similar ideologies; nemeses tend to harbor opposing views. Allies and nemeses are not necessarily a user's friends, but are provided so that a member can easily form connections with like-minded individuals or initiate lively debate.
Users express their political opinions in statements called resolves. A member posts a resolve, such as, "English should be the national language of the U.S." Members can then vote one of the following: Agree, Lean Agree, Lean Against or Against. The site tabulates each vote to reveal a general consensus for each resolve.
Users can also comment on a resolve — with one catch: Members are only permitted to post once per resolve.
This rule prevents people from dominating a discussion or perpetuating a circular argument, which are common annoyances connected with message boards. The rule also forces users to contemplate their response carefully and to form a concise, convincing argument, according to Green.
Drawing members from everywhere from the high school debate circuit to the middle-aged married pool, the site is successfully luring users from all walks of life. The unifying thread is that these members all enjoy active debate about current affairs and issues that are affecting the nation.
And many of them are hooked. The site's groups section has produced an Essembly Addicts group, while one recent resolve stated, "I have an addiction to Essembly." Numerous users agreed, with a member named Kyle even posting, "I have voted on close to 1,900 resolves, which is more than 20 percent of all the resolves, ever."
After observing Essembly members' passion for politics, Green says his next vision is translating this political interest and activity from the virtual world to the real one."The challenge is just finding each other," Green said. "And the way that [people] find each other is through geographical connections, social connections and ideological connections.
"The idea is that if we can provide people with that, they can much more efficiently find each other and organize."