"Iowa does three things. We grow corn, we go to state fairs, and we caucus," Jordan Lampe told me inside Dwolla's Des Moines office.
Lampe—who works for the popular Des Moines e-commerce startup (which enables people to wire other people money)—is the chief organizer of the Iowa Internet Uncaucus 2012, a livestreamed, non-partisan political event held this past weekend aimed at boosting civic engagement. The Uncaucus was also an opportunity for Reddit's Internet 2012 bus to shut down a major bridge for the evening and meet some concerned and politically active Iowans in the shadow of the Iowa State Capitol building.
"Iowa plays a huge role in our nation's political landscape every four years and as Iowans our greatest strength is our sense of community. We want to say, 'I don't care what side of the river you live on, we're going to meet in the middle, discuss our pressing issues with our neighbors and let the Internet carry our message forward,'" Lampe said.
True to the metaphor, politically concerned citizens met in the middle of the bridge, though turnout was hampered by the temperatures in the 30s and the anticipated crowd of hundreds was closer to about 50. For nearly an hour and a half, 10 Iowans took turns on a soapbox, discussing issues from city voting and family farming to net neutrality. Participants at home and at the event could vote for and comment on the speeches via text message or head online to rally around a particular cause.
For those on the bus, it was yet another reminder of just how hard it is to achieve real grassroots activism, which, of course, is the purpose of tour. "We get excited about all these issues, but we never vote," Alexander Grgurich, a technology consultant and organizer for TEDxDesMoines told the crowd. "We're focusing too much on Washington, which is gridlocked, when we should be focusing on Iowa itself," he said.
While most of the bundled speakers stood up to address local issues, Des Moines lawyer and net neutrality expert Brett Trout's message was geared toward national action to urge the American public to keep vigilant against any sort of broad sweeping anti-piracy legislation—like last January's SOPA/PIPA bills— so that the freedom of the Internet endures.
For Trout, who looked out of place on the bridge wearing a pinstripe suit in a sea of North Face jackets and hooded sweatshirts, it's events like these that keep him energized in the fight.
"Even though you're preaching to the choir you're getting the choir very informed and then you go out and evangelize that to everyone else. If they can be decisive about these complex issues like net neutrality, they can spread the message. That's all we can ask right now. It's not that people don't want to take action, it's that they're unsure and afraid to make mistakes," Trout told me after his soapbox talk.
For all his optimism about the event, Trout grew more serious as the conversation turned toward the future battles to be fought against large content creators and intellectual property owners trying to censor the free collaboration of the Internet. "Unfortunately I don't think i'll be able to educate enough people on this before another bill comes through Congress," he said. "It's going to be a very uphill battle."