CEO and Co-Founder Marci Harris

Forget mobile apps, shopping or gaming, the site that just took top honors for best social media and social networking website at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, this month is focused on one thing: politics. It’s called POPVOX.com, and it’s already shaking up how business is done in Washington. We spoke with CEO and co-founder Marci Harris to learn more about the site, and the role social media can play in politics.

Sensing that the most popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter were “not equipped to deal with Congress,” POPVOX.com was launched late last year by former Capitol Hill aide Marci Harris, one-time nonprofit lobbyist Rachna Choudhry and GovTrack.us founder Josh Tauberer. Their goal: to help Hill staffers make sense of the more than 350 million email messages and correspondence they receive from constituents and lobbyists each year and, ultimately, give constituents, staffers and politicians a forum to connect through social networking.

And the social network begins with the site’s offer of real-time constituent sentiment and comments. Users can weigh in on bills by clicking a “support” or “oppose” button, posting their own comments and seeing what other respondents have to say. The comments are anonymous to the general public but the site asks for your name and address to connect you, and your voice, to the Members of Congress and staff making the big decisions. And you can link your own comments to your Facebook and Twitter accounts to share with friends not yet on POPVOX.

And that’s just the beginning for a site that describes itself as a “disruptive advocacy platform.” Read on for more details from CEO Marci Harris and see if you agree if POPVOX is the next wave in social media…

ST: What exactly is POPVOX, and how does it work?

MH: POPVOX is a free online advocacy platform that meshes legislative data with individuals’ personal stories and sentiment. POPVOX delivers public input to Congress in a format tailored to actionable policy decisions and empowers users to leverage their expertise and numbers. POPVOX provides a legislative dashboard for Congress and government affairs professionals with bill status information, customized tracking, bill-specific advocacy information, and real-time constituent sentiment and comments.

ST: How do you envision POPVOX growing as a social network between Congressional staffers, constituents and advocacy groups?

MH: There will be networking components to the site in the future, but they are not in place at the moment, except to the extent that individuals share their comments on POPVOX via other social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

ST: How are politicians using social media, and what are the major areas or opportunities they are missing?

MH: Congress and those seeking political office are making significant use of social media for their own purposes. Studies show that Members use social media tools to get their messages OUT – whether press releases, meeting announcements, points of view. It is the public trying to effectively get messages IN that misses out with the current social media offerings that are not designed to accommodate the information needs of Congress. POPVOX changes that.

ST: What has the response been so far for POPVOX, and how do you envision its growth?

MH: Responses have been positive, in a kind of hand-slap-to-the-forehead “why didn’t I think of that?” sort of way. The site will grow richer and more useful as the Congressional session goes on and the input becomes more comprehensive, with greater input from groups that are weighing in on bills and curation of content by users.

ST: Overall, have you found Washington as a whole more resistant or open to the idea of social media as a valuable tool?

MH: I think Washington is as open as can be expected to technology that up until this point was not designed with the culture and needs of Congress in mind. POPVOX starts with Congress – the way it works, the way it can be influenced and the way it needs to receive information.

ST: As an individual, a voter and constituent, how is POPVOX valuable to me?

MH: POPVOX allows individuals to learn about pending legislation, read what other people in their community, organizations and their own Members of Congress are saying about it — and then send a comment to their Members of Congress, which is public on the site.

ST: And for Members of Congress and staffers, how would they maximize POPVOX?

MH: For Congressional staffers, POPVOX is a one-stop shop for data, including support/opposition analysis, constituent comments and advocacy group positions. POPVOX’s customizable “docket” lists comments from constituents verified by POPVOX; pie and line charts illustrating cumulative constituent sentiment; bills by hot issues in the state or district, and on key issue areas; official data about bill status, sponsor information and co-sponsor tallies, and lists of endorsing/opposing organizations by bill.