Gupta told Winer about an idea for a one-stop website where Amherst students could go to find information relevant to their daily lives. They named their initial template for the site “Amherst Central.”
“There had been some good things within the [external] Amherst website, but they were very hard to find. We connected useful features in one page: weather, the Valentine menu, links to things that were going on,” Winer explained.
Once the site launched that fall, the response on campus was overwhelming. “It was this phenomenon, this big deal,” Winer remembered. “People knew about it and checked it all the time. And not only did everyone go to the site, but they also seemed to be talking about it.” Compelled by this attention from the College community, Winer and Gupta tried to keep their approach fresh. At one point, they even set up a webcam in their room.
Throughout the early days of Amherst Central, Winer remained dedicated to the project, devoting several hours per day to it. “We didn’t have it automated,” said Winer. “We were updating it by hand every day. We were copying and pasting the text ourselves.”
Winer believes that the key to the site’s popularity lay less in its content than in the energy that surrounded it. “The information presented on the site is somewhat useful, but not enough to compel people the way it did. I think what was most exciting to people was the fact that there was this project happening on the Web site-a project generated by student energy,” he explained.
The birth of the Jolt
By Interterm of Winer and Gupta’s sophomore year, the site had outgrown the College network. At this point, Seth Fitzsimmons ’02 joined the team, taking on much of the high-tech work, like writing programming code. It was then that the site became known as the Daily Jolt.
Winer, on the other hand, focused on expanding the scope of the Daily Jolt by contacting local businesses and networking with students he knew on other campuses. “He would try to establish a channel of communication. In a way, he acted like an evangelist and tried to spread the word,” recalled Gupta.
Students on other campuses soon expressed the desire to set up their own Daily Jolt sites. A friend of Winer’s at Brown University created one for his campus, and other schools soon followed.
After the summer of 1999, there were 24 candidate sites, with 12 campuses launching their own Daily Jolts. Gupta credits this expansion to Winer’s successful outreach efforts, noting that this expansion was “definitely a turning point.”
As the Daily Jolt became increasingly widespread, the team recognized the practicality of making the project into a commercial enterprise. After launching the 12 new sites, the members of the team “were just trying to deal with all the new students and the problems, and when we got our heads above water we were looking for some money to take it to additional schools and hire some people,” explained Gupta.
They had several funding offers, and eventually chose one. Gupta, a computer science and economics major, decided to follow through with the business side of the Daily Jolt. He took a leave of absence from Amherst and moved to Boston, where he hired a staff composed largely of Amherst graduates.
Today, the Daily Jolt has expanded to serve 100 campuses, averaging as many as 15 million hits per month.
Winer’s spirituality at Amherst
Winer, on the other hand, chose to stay at the College.
“The commercial aspect of the project was never as interesting to me as the community aspects,” he said. “I was becoming increasingly interested in spiritual questions. I wanted to stay at school.”
“I came with a lot of expectations about how college would meet all of my needs in ways that high school hadn’t, and about a level of intellectual excitement and energy and passion for ideas,” he remarked. He joined the Indicator staff, and surrounded himself with a core group of close friends who, like himself, were “passionate about ideas.”
According to Gupta, the Daily Jolt project imposed “an enormous time drain on all of us.” However, even while he worked on the site Winer remained a serious student, sampling coursework across various disciplines before settling on religion as a major. “I started as a philosophy major, considered being an anthropology major and was an LJST major for a while,” he said.
It was not until his junior year that Winer took his first religion course. “I realized I was considering similar questions in my coursework, from various disciplinary angles. I was asking questions like, ‘What is a good way to live life, for ourselves personally and for other beings in the world?’ The study of religion ended up being the culmination of those questions for me,” he said.
Winer still remembers the details of his thesis project, in which he explored internal contradictions in early Buddhist canons surrounding the practice of vegetarianism. He undertook this project with Janet Gyatso and Alec Irwin, both former Amherst professors of religion.
The pursuit of spiritual fulfillment also played a great role in Winer’s experience at Amherst. A regular attendee of the campus’s weekly Zen meditation class, he also became involved in a synagogue in town during his third and fourth years. Through these spiritual activities-which he continues today-Winer has learned, among other things, to not be controlled by his work. “My spiritual involvement has made the hardest aspects of my life more comprehensible, and helped me to understand myself better. Spirituality has been a revolutionary thing for me,” he said.
Winer cites Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science Austin Sarat as an especially influential professor, and in turn Sarat has nothing but praise for his former student.
“Noah was an extraordinary student, genuinely intellectual, engaged, committed and caring. He was an independent thinker, someone who studiously avoided the herd mentality. He wasn’t afraid to try things on, figure out if they fit, and discard what he could not believe. In addition, I remember him as being a wonderful person, caring about the world at Amherst and beyond,” said Sarat.
Working against poverty
After graduating from Amherst, Winer returned home to Maine to spend time with his parents, who grow their own food and obtain all their energy from solar power. Winer spent the summer planting and harvesting in his family’s garden while considering the ethical aspects of food production and consumption.
The following fall Winer found himself in Brooklyn where, through the Jewish service corps called AVODAH, he worked at the Urban Justice Center doing legal advocacy for low-income people with mental illnesses.
“The current system treats people as if they’re criminally wrong, always acting as if they’ve failed to go to a meeting or return some form,” he said.
He spent the year living with a group of other recent college graduates in a house in Brooklyn, and received a small stipend to cover basic living expenses. This experience marked quite a significant change from the Amherst residential life to which Winer had grown accustomed.
“I saw how much energy it takes to live in tight quarters, in a place that is ugly and dirty and noisy. This gave me insight into how draining it is to live in poverty, and I am all the more amazed that those living in poverty have ever organized for social change,” he reflected.
Winer said he remembers this year of front-line, anti-poverty service as a huge personal challenge. “It was pretty overwhelming to recognize the degree of good fortune that I have had in my life by no merit of myself or my parents-just pure good fortune. The randomness of that is compelling, and it makes me aware of my responsibilities.”
Following the program, Winer remained in Brooklyn, where he applied his sense of social awareness and political responsibility through his work with MoveOn.org, a website which constructs electronic advocacy groups around issues such as campaign finance, environmental and energy issues, impeachment, gun safety and nuclear disarmament.
Striving for involvement
He began his work at MoveOn on a part-time basis, acting as editor of the site’s bulletin while also teaching environmental education at a public middle school in Brooklyn.
Winer is proud that his work allowed people to learn extensively a variety of issues, without having to spend time conducting a search for different news perspectives. “A lot of people follow a news story sporadically, but they don’t have a consistent understanding of it. It’s important for people to feel they thoroughly understand what happened so they feel confident acting on their opinion about it,” he said. Winer also said that he tries to get people involved in democracy.
He continued, “Many people-and this goes for Amherst students as well-tend to be reserved with their opinions before they feel they know enough. That fits into the model of MoveOn, making it possible for people to participate in democracy,” he said.
“This is often talked about like it’s an easy thing, to have a vibrant democracy. I think it takes a huge amount of work.”
Winer now holds a full-time position, coordinating media accountability campaigns at MoveOn. In this capacity, Winer is able to monitor the “fifty or so media outlets that basically set the tone,” looking out for what he identifies as “egregious cases of distortion.”
When he uncovers such distortion in the media, he composes an alert message and an appeal for action, which is sent out to approximately 30,000 MoveOn members.
The response to his appeals? “It’s overwhelming,” he said. “I’ve been sort of surprised. We think of these media outlets as huge monolithic institutions, but in reality there may be four or five people answering the phones there. If they receive a thousand phone calls, they’re getting a call a minute. And increasingly, I see that even a single person writing a letter to the editor can make an impact.” Winer is working hard to enable people to make a difference.
“With this ability to make a difference-an ability that we all have-there is also an enormous amount of responsibility,” he said. “I try to work towards the extreme of democratic participation, which means that I want people en masse to have their voices heard.”
He continued, “There is very little critical thinking going on, so if you can insert that element of critical thought, then you can be extremely influential.”