Zack Exley was born on December 5, 1969 and grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, he went through a training program for radical union organizers run by the AFL-CIO and then took a job with the United Auto Workers. “For seven months, he worked undercover at a Michigan auto parts factory,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Joseph Menn in May 2004. “The unionization effort there failed, but Exley later used a team of infiltrators to successfully organize large nursing homes in Minnesota.” He remained a covert union organizer throughout much of the 1990s.
Exley left the world of organized labor in 1998 and took a job as a full-time computer programmer, work that left him bored and unfulfilled. While performing that work, however, he began to notice websites such as Salon and Slate that were advancing leftist views with which he was in sympathy. Eager to find an outlet where he, too, could give voice to his political musings, Exley began to explore the availability of various domain names that might be suitable for such a forum. In December 1998 he discovered that GWBush.com was unclaimed, and he purchased two-year rights to that address for $70. In conjunction with his friends at the San Francisco look-alike-website builder RTMark (whose principals were described by the L.A. Times as “anticorporate activists and pranksters”), Exley turned GWBush.com into the Internet’s first political parody website.
Mimicking the official Internet site of Texas Governor (and soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate) George W. Bush, GWBush.com featured bizarre articles purportedly written by Mr. Bush himself, as well as images digitally doctored to depict the governor as a drunkard and cocaine user. “It was totally Beavis and Butt-head,” Exley later told the Austin Chronicle, “just a couple of guys bored and coming up with a way to get a phone call from the Bush people.”
When Bush lawyers threatened to sue Exley for using copyrighted photographs that he had digitally lifted from the official Bush website, and when Bush angrily described Exley as “a garbage man,” the resulting publicity brought six million visitors to Exley’s site and made the young programmer an overnight darling of the left. Exley quickly exploited the opportunity by selling an array of products such as T-shirts and bumper stickers bearing slogans like: “Imperialism. A Way of Life Worth Bombing For”; “Regime Change Starts At Home”; “Bush is a Punk Ass Chump”; and “Capitalism: It’s Great in Theory, It Just Didn’t Work in Practice.”
Exley subsequently organized yet another website, CounterCoup.com, whose sole mission was to “question the legitimacy of a Bush presidency, due to disenfranchisement and disregard for the will of the people.” One page of CounterCoup showed a devil (labeled “Bush Coup”) on the ground, and an angel preparing to behead him with a broadsword labeled “The Spirit of Democracy.” Another page displayed a picture of a screaming lynch mob with the caption, “Sometimes Democracy Requires More Than Voting.”
In the fall of 2000, Exley (on another website) mused about the possibility that in the upcoming presidential election, Democratic candidate Al Gore might conceivably win the popular vote but lose in the electoral college. Urging voters to stage protests if such a thing were to occur, Exley received an overwhelming number of supportive e-mails from people who shared his concern. He then set up a system for distributing messages free-of-charge to eGroup subscribers, as well as an electronic bulletin-board system that was later purchased by Yahoo. While the post-election Florida recount crisis was in process, thousands of Exley contacts protested in dozens of cities nationwide.
In early 2003 Exley was hired by Wes Boyd, the multi-millionaire software creator, to work for the Berkeley, California-based MoveOn.org. Not long after Exley joined the organization, MoveOn launched a contest encouraging its audience to produce negative ads about President Bush. The group posted on its website two of these ads which co-mingled images of Bush and Adolf Hitler, thereby conveying a message that the two men were eerily alike. While public outrage over this smear prompted MoveOn to remove the images from its site, Exley himself refused to apologize. Rather, he dismissed the complaints as “typical Republican bullsh**.”
Also in 2003, Exley spent two weeks helping to develop the Web-based presidential campaign organization of Howard Dean. As the L.A. Times reported: “[Exley] showed the Dean staff how to use Meet-Up.com, which put volunteers together in living rooms around the country.”
Having previously received activism training at a workshop sponsored by the Ruckus Society, Exley in 2005 became the director of online organizing for the UK Labour Party’s re-election campaign. Later that year, he co-founded (with the help of Eli Pariser) and served as president of the New Organizing Institute. Exley also spent some time as a “workshop facilitator” for the Ruckus Society.
In March 2007, Exley participated in the Left Forum at Cooper Union College in New York City. That same year, he founded Revolution in Jesusland, a blogsite that sought to blur the lines between the secular left and evangelical Christianity. Exley’s target audience consisted of those whom he called “last-will-be-first” Christians whose religious beliefs were rooted in egalitarian conceptions of economic and social justice.
In January 2008 Exley took a job with ThoughtWorks, Inc., a global information-technology consultancy that advises groups and campaigns. He continues to serve as the director of ThoughtWorks’ organizing practice.
Also in 2008, Exley worked as a consultant and researcher for the Barack Obama presidential campaign. As an Open Society Institute Fellow, Exley in 2009 wrote a series of articles about the organizing model used by the Obama campaign and by numerous community and labor groups.
In June 2010 Exley joined the Wikimedia Foundation, the San Francisco-based entity best known for hosting Wikipedia, as a chief community officer. He left Wikimedia in 2013 but still serves as an occasional consultant for the organization.
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