On the 4th of July, Sean Parker's civic startup, Brigade, reached a milestone that might be notable to political operatives, policy advocates, and campaign organizers. More than 1 million opinions had been shared on its new social network, where the politically minded create profiles based on where they stand on a multitude of issues — forming a kind of living voter database that's also a debate club and a town hall.
A million may not necessarily seem like a lot — after all, the billion-plus users on Parker's old startup, Facebook, likely post a million status updates in a single day. But it's practically unheard of for a brand-new politics-focused app. "When you talk to most people and tell them that we're building a product to repair our democracy, their first reaction is, 'Oh, politics. I hate politics,'" Brigade's CEO, Matt Mahan, told BuzzFeed News. To hear him tell it, the average citizen looks at the vortex of campaign money, the labyrinth of Beltway bureaucracy, and the absurdist theater of the talking-points media machine and feels small, insignificant. They tune out. And — as anyone who's browsed the comments on a story about Hillary Clinton or posted a political link on Facebook knows well enough — to engage in political discussion online is very often to enter a black hole of acrimony, harassment, and tribalism.
But Mahan thinks Brigade can be different: a network built for genuine, meaningful, troll-free debate, about issues that actually matter to voters. "If you can get it down to the level of issues that people care about and the issues that affect their lives," Mahan said, "it turns out people care a lot about politics."
So that's where Brigade focuses: on the issues. As of last month, the app is offered, on an invitation-only basis, on iOS and Android. Purple is the dominating color (a thematic choice with electoral-map significance), and the main screen is a stream of issue statements that individuals can agree or disagree with: "Congress should reform our electoral system to end gerrymandering and eliminate obstacles to voting," reads one. "Women should be given more paid maternity leave," another. In addition to clicking a button to express support or opposition to a statement, a person can respond with a written note to address nuance, see the percentage breakdown of how others responded, and read comments. Topics trending now on Brigade include nuclear Iran, Hillary Clinton's economic agenda, and the GOP presidential race.
In an earlier test version of the app, the average person agreed or disagreed with 90 issues. Half of the 13,000 test users were aged 18–24, according to Brigade, a demographic with historically low voter turnout and one that many believe is resigned to a dysfunctional political system. That was heartening to Mahan, Parker (the firm's executive chair), and Brigade President James Windon. "We realized that the place to reach people about political issues was to go through their own personal experience and their own opinions," Mahan said, "and making those opinions something that can be a productive and interesting conversation."
One of Brigade's most promising features on the horizon, the team believes, is the ability to build coalitions. New Brigade users respond to an initial survey of issue statements, not all that unlike the battery of questions new OkCupid users are prompted to answer. Afterward, they can view profiles, or be directed to them, and see how well aligned they are with others, and connect with them. Delving into a particular policy area — say, healthcare — offers increasingly specific statements, creating a granular repository of people's opinions.
For advocacy groups, this repository becomes a recruitment tool to screen for the faithful. And for individuals, Brigade hopes to offer ways to build groups of the like-minded — to raise funds, organize protests, lobby for legislation, or push for candidates. Now just over a year old, Brigade has more than $9 million in funding from Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Ron Conway and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.
Like Facebook, Brigade hinges on the use of "real identities" — a practice that has already drawn significant blowback on that network from the LGBT community and domestic violence survivors, among others. A political app like Brigade presents other concerns: It's easy to see why people might not want to publicly express their views on, say, marijuana policy or gun ownership. But Mahan sees real names as not only crucial to Brigade's success as an abuse-free, spam-free community, but as vital to discourse, too.
"In certain contexts, if you want your voice to matter in democracy it's got to be paired with who you are as a citizen and as a voter," he said. Ultimately, his vision is that — as Facebook has done with users' social lives, and LinkedIn has with their professional lives — Brigade will come to represent a person's civic life. Having a real name attached to a profile, he said, is one way to encourage productive conversations, and to discourage the malevolence that defines the broader internet. "A democratic society has always been about the public square and expressing opinions," he said. "If we try to privatize our political discourse and hide it, that's the beginning of the end for our democracy."
Mahan and Windon emphasized that a person on Brigade can choose to hide their response to an issue statement or simply not answer it. They pointed to various privacy controls Brigade has put in place. But they returned to the point that within the context of civics, having a public identity is key.
The ingenuity — or arrogance — of Silicon Valley somehow busting through the impervious walls of Washington is not a new story. Neither is the uplifting tale of new media elevating political discourse to defeat apathy, Joseph Kony, and the hashtag plight of the moment. But it's early days for Brigade. The 2016 election is still 482 days away.
"People have an opinion about what the world should look like and they want to play a role in shaping that world," Mahan said, speaking to Brigade's aspirations as a platform to channel optimism and discontent. "We can't retreat from the idea that a healthy democracy requires people to be in dialogue with another about the issues of our time."
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
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