I first learned of Jim Gilliam sitting at a bar in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the sidelines of the 2012 Democratic convention. I was meeting with a source who ran a prominent political technology firm. As always, I ended the conversation by asking what else I should be looking into. What were the juiciest overlooked stories out there? Who were the most intriguing people in the industry? The exec didn't hesitate. Look up this guy named Jim Gilliam, she said. He gave this speech a few years ago, about how he almost died twice, he used to be an evangelical Christian, and about religion and the internet.
The tip lived up to its hype. Gilliam's story—the subject of the following profile, first published in 2013—is so improbable and wild, you couldn't make it up. At its core is a fierce debate about technology in our polarized times, who gets access to it and who doesn't. Do liberals guard against anyone other than their allies using their technology? Or should such advances be available to everyone, regardless of the ideology of the technology's creator? Who gets to decide such things?
It's a debate that still rages, with Gilliam's company, NationBuilder, being hired by none other than Donald Trump's presidential campaign. I hope you come away from this story with at least a recognition of why Jim Gilliam believes technology should be available to all—and how Gilliam literally beat the odds (and beat them, and beat them again) to stay alive.
Jim Gilliam of NationBuilder says his software will "democratize democracy." So why do many of his progressive friends consider him a traitor?
The American Prospect | October 9, 2013
TWO YEARS AGO on a summer morning, Jim Gilliam stood offstage at New York University’s Skirball Center. It was the second day of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual gathering of civic-minded coders, hackers, and online organizers. Many in the crowd knew Gilliam as much for his appearance—he’s six-foot-nine, bald, ivory-pale, and impossibly thin—as for his brilliance as a programmer and his passion for progressive causes. Gilliam, who was 33 years old, had never spoken before such a large audience, and as he strode across the stage and looked out on all the people, he was terrified.
“Growing up,” he began, “I had two loves: Jesus and the Internet.” He had titled his speech “The Internet Is My Religion,” and he was surprised the conference’s organizers had agreed to let him give a talk steeped in God and faith. Even though he’d rehearsed for weeks, he expected to bomb. Still, he had to do this. His entire life, he believed, had led him to this point. “I was born again when I was eight,” Gilliam told the audience. Wandering the stage TED-talk style, he wore thick-lensed Oakley glasses, a T-shirt depicting Abraham Lincoln, and skinny jeans cinched tight at the waist. He had grown up in Silicon Valley, he continued, where he was “quite the precocious young conservative,” who went to church three times a week, called in to talk radio, and listened to Rush Limbaugh. Gilliam’s mother homeschooled him and his two sisters, shielding him from the secular world.
One day, his father brought home a weird-looking phone and plugged it into the household computer. “It made a bizarre screeching noise like it was trying to mate with a rhinoceros or something. Instead, it attracted me, and that’s when I found out that computers could talk to each other.”
The story that followed was improbable, and few people in the audience, including many who were friends of Gilliam, were aware of its outlines. In 1994, his family moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he attended the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. In his first year, Gilliam was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Two weeks into chemotherapy, Gilliam learned that his mother had cancer. “I survived, my mom didn’t, our family fell apart, and my faith in God was shattered.”
Gilliam dropped out of Liberty and fled to Boston to join an Internet start-up. Within months, the cancer returned; he had leukemia. Near death, lying in the intensive care unit, he would hit a button at his bedside that injected him with dilaudid (otherwise known as “hospital heroin”) to blunt the pain. “Every time I pressed it, I felt defeated and broken,” he said. “I just wanted it to end. God had forsaken me.”
The doctors had not. A bone-marrow transplant saved Gilliam’s life. “I couldn’t waste another second of my life, so I gave myself to the Internet, what I loved most.” He established himself as a wunderkind coder during the first dot-com boom. Then September 11 happened, and he gave up his tech career for liberal activism. “I had no illusions at all that I could change anything,” he said, “but knew … that if I didn’t at least try, I would look back in ten years and regret it.” He volunteered first for the anti-war group MoveOn and then went on to co-found Brave New Films with left-wing documentary director Robert Greenwald, where he pioneered online fundraising and distribution. Then, just shy of his 28th birthday, Gilliam found himself struggling to breathe. Doctors told him he needed a double-lung transplant. The chemo that had saved his life had destroyed his lungs.
On a cloudy February morning in 2007, he received the lungs of a recently deceased 22-year-old man. As he headed into surgery, he had a revelation. When he awoke—if he awoke—he would have the DNA of three different people: The marrow donor’s, the lung donor’s, and his own. “And that’s when I truly found God. God is just what happens when humanity is connected.”
He would be dead, he said, if not for the people who had sacrificed to save his life. “We are all connected. We are all in debt to each other. We all owe every moment of our lives to countless people we will never meet. The Internet gives us the opportunity to pay back a small part of that debt.” Raising his hands to the ceiling, looking down at his feet, pausing for emphasis, Gilliam could have been a preacher offering a prayer. “What the people in this room do is spiritual. It is profound. We are the leaders of this new religion. We have faith that people connected can create a new world.”
When he finished speaking, Gilliam ran off the stage to a standing ovation. Audience members mobbed him in the hall. “Not a dry eye in the house,” tweeted the tech writer Cory Doctorow. The website Business Insider called the talk “a modern epic.” The video became a YouTube sensation, with eventually more than 500,000 views. Capital New York declared it “the best video on the Internet.”