Underground Network: An App Could Spark the Next Political Revolution
Charles Como of The Underground Network believes his app can return power to the people
The word “entrepreneur” conjures images of a person in a sharp suit trying to convince a room full of businessmen and businesswomen to fund their next big project. It’s easy to imagine them trying to capitilise on a major corporations’ ability to invest in the “next big thing”. I knew Charles Como was an entrepreneur, but didn’t expect that, by the end of our interview, my definition of what that meant would completely shift.
Como runs his company, The Underground Network, out of a studio in Burbank, California. Designed as a way for millennials to engage more directly and powerfully with the political process, Como is passionate about its prospects. Speaking with him, it becomes clear that Underground Network is more than just another entrepreneur’s boardroom idea – it has the potential to turn into a powerful political movement.
Como’s career started when he was nineteen years old. He lived with his uncle, who worked as an investment banker, so it was no surprise when Como decided, as many young adults do, to follow in his family’s footsteps. And he was good at it – he became one of the youngest branch office managers at Drexel Burnham, at the time one of the biggest investment banking firms. He continued his investment-banking career with another industry juggernaut, Lehman Brothers, but left the industry in 1994.
“I felt like I wanted to do good for people,” he says. “I was not happy being in that industry, so I got out. And that’s when I came across this thing called the Internet.”
He continues: “In 1994 no one knew what the Internet was.” But it was the thing that he would spend the rest of his professional life exploring.
Como then started a web development company, and remembers what it was like:
Eventually, as the Internet continued to evolve, Como stumbled across a new video website: YouTube. Around the same time, he met a Russian woman who was studying philology – which deals with the structure and relationships of language. He explains that it was common for Russian people who wanted to come to America to study philology as a means to better learn English.
They paired up to create a YouTube channel about etymology, the origins of words and what they have come to mean throughout history. They created videos on a daily basis about the origin of certain words and phrases.
The channel became one of the most successful on YouTube, gathering over half a billion views in total. “It was one of the first channels to create over a million dollars a year in ad revenue,” Como says. “After building the YouTube channel, it blew up. It was crazy. I got a book deal with Harper Collins.”
Unfortunately, the channel dissolved after some time due to creative differences. This is where our story really begins, with the birth of the Underground Network. A few years ago, Como and his then-fiancé – now wife – were visiting her home country of Greece. At the time, it was clear that Greece’s financial crisis was still heavily affecting the country.
Como wanted to create something that would harness the Internet to make people not only more interested, but also directly involved in the political process.
The Underground Network was born three years ago, just before the political chaos that was the campaign for the United States presidential election of 2016. When Como first started to share his idea, people were unconvinced he could get people to pay attention or care. The consensus was that young people just weren’t motivated enough to reach their full potential to have a political voice.
Como and I speculate that right around the time Donald Trump announced his intention to become a presidential candidate, people started to open their eyes. He states that once a politician is elected into office, they spend a vast majority of their time campaigning for their next election. He suggests that this is a problem, because it means politicians use their work hours making sure they have enough money to campaign again in the next election cycle.
(Fun fact: In 2012, a study showed that corporations that invest money in lobbying get an estimated 22,000% return rate. That means for every $1 million dollars spent, the return would be $220 million. Hence, corporations jump at the opportunity to invest in a politician, so long as they work together as a result.)
Since legislation is passed between elections, it can be difficult to communicate how people expect their politicians to vote. This is where the Underground Network can be utilised, and how it could become an important tool in connecting the politician to the people they are entrusted to represent.
Here’s how it works: A thirty-second video is produced to identify a given policy or law being proposed. It will include who introduced it, who is backing it, and potential conflicts of interest. Underground Network will notify your phone, through its app, from where you can easily access the video and learn all about the issue. Then, you get to decide how you feel about the legislation and vote on it via the Underground Network community.
Underground Network then takes the app users’ votes, comments, questions and concerns straight to Washington D.C., where they will have their own crew of lobbyists and filmmakers. The video footage will contain the Underground Network lobbyist approaching the politician and filming their reaction, giving citizens the immediate ability to see if the politician is, in fact, working for them and their interests.
But what type of person would the Underground Network’s lobbyist be? More specifically, how can they compete with professional lobbyists working on behalf of corporate companies? Como points to YouTube.
“I say YouTube stars, because they might have millions of followers, young people that created these huge followings that are passionate about this stuff,” he says. “I like the idea of using regular people as lobbyists.”
It’s a great idea, considering the first part of his goal is to get people to pay attention. If you have someone they already relate to and trust, that invites a huge portion of the millennial audience.
Como explains why this generation is so important: “[Millennials] are the largest potential voting block right now in history in America. Meaning, that if all the millennials got out and voted, they could dictate the next election.”
Ani Mosinyan, writer and researcher at Underground Network, is a perfect example of a young person getting involved with the movement. Mosinyan was a student at University Southern California when she first heard about the project, and began getting involved in politics despite it being “something she never thought [she’d] be involved in.”
Mosinyan and Como share the same eager anticipation.
“I’m super excited to see the show come into play and be a part of the production process. I think that’s when Underground will reach out to audiences and get people involved”, she says. “It’s a prime time to make a lasting impact, and I think Underground Network is capable of doing that.”
The Underground Network is currently deciding the most effective method to present the channel to the public.
“You can create a show on the internet and try to build it up on your own, or you can create one with a big production company who knows what they’re doing and use that marketing force behind it to build up the show and get the app in people’s hands,” Como says. “The idea is to get people to use the app while watching the show.”
Como wants The Underground Network to start big, with the federal government, as opposed to working their way up from local and state governments. His aim is to focus on the federal level to show people on a large scale what they can achieve. Once they have the app, people can start dealing with local issues as well. If someone has something going on in their town or city, they will be able to notify people in their area and have the exact same process as with DC-based politicians.
“We want to educate people that they have the power to bring about change,” Como says. “For instance, if 90% of people want something and the government still refuses, that’s a big problem. We could really make a big stink out of that. Then you realize you’re not in a democracy and people are going to get pissed. So that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Como’s plans for the future include moving the project to other countries, to bring the power back to democracies on a global scale. For him, success will be gauged by the power this returns to ordinary citizens.
Como sees an opportunity for The Underground Network to play a huge part in an overall political movement, which gives people the opportunity to ensure that those they voted into positions of power are actually doing their job: listening and representing their citizens.
Featured Image by Geoff Livingston (Source: flickr)