OnQ Blog

Cory Booker at SXSW: Changing Government with Disruptive Technology

Mar 17, 2013

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On a sunny Sunday afternoon, in Austin’s Long Center, across the river from the clamor at the Austin Convention Center for the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference was a discussion of a different kind. Instead of privatized space travel, social media, grumpy cat, and the Internet of things, this talk was about politics and government. The star speaker was Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey; compulsive tweeter, and one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party.

Booker was interviewed by Time’s Steven James Snyder, with Booker taking most of the mic time and using the opportunity as a chance to inspire young people to “disrupt” government by using technology and social media. An eloquent orator and fan of famous quotes, Booker invoked Winston Churchill, Alice Walker, and even his parents in the string of motivating one-liners.

Here are the highlights from the event.

Booker’s Beginnings on Twitter

The mayor said he had “the weirdest entrance into social media.” In his first months in office, he says he was so busy doing outreach and “riding in police cars” that he had not time to socialize online. A friend suggested he should start using Twitter to connect with his constituency and inform Newark residents of city happenings. This friend also did PR work for Ashton Kutcher, so when Booker dragged his feet on tweeting, he received a call in his office from Kutcher, who spent an hour telling Booker why social media is vital. At first, Booker says, “I thought I was being punked!” But soon Booker found the platform addictive and powerful. He told stories of using it for everything from reaching out to vets across the country to getting potholes fixed in Newark.

The Danger of Deleting Tweets

Booker admitting to have a “wry” sense of humor that sometimes got him in trouble on Twitter. He relayed an incident last year in which he made an off-color coffee joke that was misinterpreted. His staff deleted the tweet, which got him in even more trouble. His policy from then on was not necessarily to reign in his tweeting, but instead to just be honest, human, and “never delete tweets.”

He maintained that “the more politicians use social media, the more you see their humanity.” This, he says, will bring more civic involvement and “more authentic engagement to politics and government.”


Booker displayed his own entrepreneurial side by talking about Waywire, a social video site where you can upload video clips and “rewire” them to follows. He says that the project is a way for good content to be crowdsourced and bubble up to the top.

“I trust the people of this country to bring good ideas and good content to the fore,” he said.

Disrupting Government

Booker spoke with optimism about the entrepreneurial spirit of the younger generation and how it can be leveraged to create new avenues for civic involvement. In Booker’s words:

“In America, what lags behind the most technologically is government. I see the politics of the future being not linear. My generation and Millennials are going to break open democracy in new ways.”

As part of his conclusion, Booker reinforced the importance of community building both online and off by quoting an African parable:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”


Photo courtesy of the City of Newark.

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Erik Rhey