Crowdsourcing start-up aims to change the world

A new organization launching Tuesday aims to crowdsource millions of 99-cent gifts to fund hundreds of science and technology start-ups that could help solve the world's biggest problems.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read
Armchair Revolutionary is a new not-for-profit company that aims to crowdsource large numbers of 99-cent gifts to help support a wide variety of science and technology innovators. Paul Sizer for Armchair Revolutionary

Want to change the world but only have 99 cents? Armchair Revolutionary is here to help.

Set to launch into beta on Tuesday, Armchair Revolutionary is a Web-based social activism platform designed to harness large-scale crowdsourcing and the boom in social gaming in a bid to support a wide variety of science and technology ventures that could benefit the world at large.

Started by the founders of The Hollywood Hill, said to be the largest social change membership organization in the entertainment-industry, Armchair Revolutionary is meant to bring people's interest in helping support worthwhile causes and the iTunes-era simplicity of spending 99 cents on something intriguing together with innovators who need funding to get potentially world-changing projects off the ground.

Built around a series of eight social activism tasks--gifting, VoIP phone calling, e-mailing, uploading, downloading, voting, forms, and quizzes--Armchair Revolutionary is seen by its creators as a one-stop shop for today's Web savvy and altruistic communities to make a big difference, one small step at a time.

The value proposition? That today's existing Web-based social activism efforts suffer from a combination of being boring; of wasting too much money on transaction fees and asking for too much to get mass participation; of not rewarding that participation and much more.

By contrast, by building a substantial competitive game element into Armchair Revolutionary, limiting gifts to 99 cents and providing plenty of participatory opportunities and rewards, the platform's founders believe they have found a way to support the "super geeks" who are developing the science and the technology that could help humanity dig out from some of our biggest problems.

"Every generation or so, new groups of people come around who find a way to make a difference," said Lawrence Bender, the producer of films like "Pulp Fiction" and "Inglourious Basterds" and an Armchair Revolutionary adviser. "And a couple generations ago, it was Lew Wasserman here in Hollywood, and Arianna Huffington is one of the leaders of that now, and it goes on. So this is an example of a group of young people coming together, using Hollywood and Silicon Valley as a launching point to engage people, and I think it's exciting. That can only be good."

A substantial gap
These days, it has become widely recognized that the people who are doing the work that could best solve the biggest problems in problem areas like health care, the environment, education, water, hunger and the like are scientists and engineers. And while that increasing awareness has brought those innovators together with wealthy benefactors, particularly in environments like the TED conferences, there remains a substantial gap between many of the people researching ways to impact our biggest problems and the funding that can help them manifest their visions.

In general, said Ariel Hauter, one of the three co-founders of Armchair Revolutionary, independent researchers are often unable to make their world-changing ideas a reality because of weaknesses in the systems for financing, commercializing, and deploying and marketing such work.

Yet, in order for these types of projects to attack enough problems to make a difference, Hauter continued, it's necessary to find the financial support to get behind many dozens of projects a year. "One or two is not enough to change the world," Hauter said.

Hauter, a former agent-trainee with United Talent Agency, and his partner at The Hollywood Hill, Ori Neidich, who works for DreamWorks Animation, were inspired by the ability of organizations like MoveOn.org to raise substantial amounts of money in very short periods of time over the Internet, as well as by the exponential growth of social networks like Facebook. And two years ago, the partners, along with fellow co-founder and former Wall Street CPA Paris Hauter, set about to build Armchair Revolutionary as a way of crowdsourcing microdonations and supporting the super geeks with the best ideas but not enough money.

Besides Bender, the project's other advisers include Scott Burns, a producer on "An Inconvenient Truth" and the screenwriter of the movie "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "The Informant;" Robin Hunicke, the producer of Electronic Arts' MySims and the Steven Spielberg project Boom Blox; and Susan Bonds, the president of 42 Entertainment, long one of the best-known makers of alternate-reality games.

On the one hand, it's hard to imagine what good a bunch of 99-cent gifts can do. But at that price, Hauter suggested, large numbers of people could decide that it's worth opening up their pocketbooks. And if Armchair Revolutionary is right and millions of people join up, it could be easy to raise the kind of money that will help get a significant number of the projects the organization wants to fund off the ground.

To begin with, however, it will focus on three projects. First, a video game called "Make Waves" that is designed to provide users with real-life social activism tools while they manage part of the ocean in a virtual environment modeled on the real-world. Second, "Hack Your Body," a three-part effort designed around the "fast approaching genomics revolution" that includes the Personal Genome Project; the development of commercial software that will allow users to analyze their own DNA; and a full-length commercial documentary film about genomics. And finally, "End of Darkness," a publicly financed company that aims to build clean energy infrastructure for the poor.

It's a game
One way Hauter hopes to achieve that goal is by designing Armchair Revolutionary around a social game system and tantalizing members with a never-ending series of tasks and a point system that could keep them constantly in search of the rewards that come with greater participation.

To begin with, members will find a basic dashboard that presents them with their level, how many points they have, their overall community ranking, and a series of available tasks.

At launch, Armchair Revolutionary is pursuing three projects, and each of the tasks members can attempt to complete are related to those major efforts. So, for "Hack Your Body," participants can send a customized e-mail about their feelings on whether people should or should not be required to share their DNA sequences. Or, they can take a quiz related to the making of the documentary. And, ultimately, they can make a gift to the team making the film.

The Armchair Revolutionary dashboard, which shows off some of the game elements of the system, including what level a user is at, how many points they have and what tasks they can work on.

At the earliest levels, the tasks are fairly simple and can be completed easily and quickly. But the goal is to get people playing enough and scoring enough points that they graduate to new levels and bigger and more interesting tasks.

As they gain points, they'll also be able to purchase artwork with which to customize their Armchair Revolutionary user pages. And this system is at the core of what makes the larger project possible, Hauter said. Essentially, all transactions on the site are conducted in a virtual currency called Kredz. Users can buy Kredz for 33 cents each--or can buy them with a number of other major currencies--and make their gifts or their artwork purchases entirely with the virtual currency.

That's important, Hauter explained, because Armchair Revolutionary was built around the notion that enough people will want to participate at a high level--not just gifting money to innovators but also buying the virtual goods for their own use--to pay the organization's costs and keep it self-sustaining.

Investments in innovation
At its heart, Armchair Revolutionary is actually a sort of "public trust fund," Hauter said. That's because while individual participants are gifting their 99 cents to help support the variety of innovations it is promoting--none of the profits or equity investments are held by individuals, as Armchair Revolutionary is wholly owned by the nonprofit Social Change Innovators--the company itself is taking that money and investing it in those start-ups.

"We are saying [to the public], you give us 99 cents for social good," Hauter said, "and if an investment project [succeeds], we have the potential to turn that 99 cents into $5 or $10 or $100 down the road and re-invest."

So while participants won't personally see any material gains from their 99-cent gifts, they can have the potential benefit of watching the projects they choose to support blossom and the resources that flow back to Armchair Revolutionary be used to tackle the next important project.

For its part, Armchair Revolutionary is technically a for-profit company, but Hauter said that it will be run entirely as a "not-for-profit." That means it is a "very unique hybrid legal structure" that will allow the company to invest in science and technology projects that, if successful, will be spun off into their own for-profit ventures.

And, he continued, the legal structure Armchair Revolutionary's lawyers concocted allows the company to act as essentially a nonprofit but at the same time to take stakes in the ventures in which it invests. Still, since the money for those investments will be coming from the public, Hauter said the company intends to be entirely transparent and will regularly post as much information as possible about what amounts to the company's stock portfolio.

High tolerance of risk
While capping gifts at 99 cents was meant to incentivize the maximum number of users, Hauter said there was another reason for limiting the amount to less than a dollar: engendering a high tolerance for risk.

That's crucial, he said, in an environment where a substantial number of the investments the company makes will fail. For while people may not miss their 99 cents, they will also not feel bad if the investment goes sour. The same would likely not be true at higher levels. "It allows us to get behind projects that are too experimental for traditional foundations," Hauter said. "We can go in where they're too chicken to, because they want to back things that are proven. We can be the incubator for ideas that are too experimental for the traditional nonprofit world and the traditional science world."

And that means, of course, that if even 30 percent of the investments pan out, Armchair Revolutionary can exult in its success.

E-mails and calls
While investments are an essential piece of the Armchair Revolutionary puzzle, there are several other ways members can help out. One is using the built-in system to compose and send e-mails to influential executives regarding important innovations. So, Hauter said, members could be tasked with sending, for example, an e-mail touting "some new biodegradable plastic" to the head of plastics at GE. The system would hide the recipient's real email address, maintaining their privacy. The same is true of the system's phone calls element, which allows members to talk to someone in a position of influence by connecting the two people via a conference call.

And users will also be able to upload things like images of potholes that need to be fixed--and later raise money to do the repairs--and download things like mobile apps. Similarly, there will be a regular series of quizzes, surveys and votes on issues.

Ultimately, Armchair Revolutionary is aimed at engaging a large number of users by presenting them with manageable tasks, with a game that will keep them competitive and with the chance to make a difference with a low threshold of time and money invested. The goal--which is admittedly ambitious--is to get 10 million users and have a minimum of 5 percent participating on any given day. That, Hauter said, would likely provide the resources to keep about 250 projects going over the course of a year, many of which require a minimum of $500,000 to get off the ground.

"We are the first Web site to connect the public directly with the world's innovators and give them opportunities to support their projects," Hauter said. "And that's a very compelling proposition because the future of the world hangs in the balance. And these are the super geeks that are going to solve the problems."