Matt Mahan is sitting in the lobby of the Le Méridien Hotel in Center City, and he can’t stop looking out the front window. Across the street at the city’s Municipal Services Building are hundreds of supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders who are protesting the Democratic National Convention.
“I guarantee you that fewer than 1 percent of the people out there in that plaza — and these people really care — but fewer than 1 percent went to Bernie’s website and read through the whole platform,” Mahan said. “They’re there because they have a certain life experience and set of values that align with others.”
This whole week in Philadelphia, and last week in Cleveland, Mahan and his San Francisco-based business partners have been pitching a solution to that problem by matching voters not only with candidates, but with each other. It’s an app called Brigade, and it’s been described as the “LinkedIn for politics.” Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook (yeah, the guy who was played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, and who was instrumental in breaking the music industry with Napster), is one of the co-founders.
What it does
Here’s how it works: When a user logs into the app, they’re asked which of 21 issues ranging from gun violence to the environment matter most to them, and they’re then asked specific questions about those issues so the app can figure out where the user falls on the spectrum.
Then comes the most impressive part. After entering your personal information, the app connects with county-by-county public voting record data through a third-party service contracted with Brigade. It pulls the address with which you registered to vote, your party affiliation and how many years you’ve voted — but you don’t see that. The only thing visible to other users is a blue “verified voter” checkmark next to your profile picture.
By this point, you can navigate through the app and do some of the following:
- View your voting district and learn about who your elected officials are.
- Presidential candidates appear on a page of their own and, when clicked on, you’ll see how closely they align on the issues with each presidential candidate. From there, you can pledge to vote for one candidate or another. (Info on how the candidates stand on the issues is pulled from non-partisan sources like Ballotpedia and OntheIssues.
- The social aspect comes in when voters post a “debate,” shown above in the image on the left. That’s when a user makes a statement, and can open it up to others in their area to say whether they agree or disagree. The creator of the debate can present supporting evidence like news articles.
- You can connect with other voters in their district who think like them, making issue advocacy a main tenet of what the app can do.
The goal? Providing information, and letting organization happening organically.
“We think there’s a demand, particularly in younger voters that’s not being met. A tools and information deficit,” Mahan said. “We’re trying to bring politics online into the 21st century to address this deficit of information and tools that younger voters need to have confidence in engaging the system.”
The business side
The app was conceived about two years ago by Mahan and co-founder and president James Windon, both of whom previously worked with Facebook’s Causes network that allowed users to connect with non-profits and issues they cared about. They wanted to take it a step farther and create a social network for politics and issue advocacy.
They got Parker on board and have since teamed up with venture capitalists like Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley “super angel,” and Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce. For now, they consider themselves a venture-backed startup, but the idea is to begin making money at scale a la Facebook, LinkedIn and the like.
The team has grown significantly and now employs some 30 engineers, but the founders are tight-lipped about the number of users Brigade has amassed. What they have disclosed are the specs about those users they learned after polling 1,000 of them.
- 80 percent of Brigade users polled said they planned to vote in the 2016 general election. Nationwide turnout in the last presidential election was just over 50 percent.
- 74 percent of Brigade users polled said they planned to vote in their state primaries.
- More than 80 percent of respondents said they’re interested in national politics; half said they were interested in local, state or international issues.
- 60 percent said they were “extremely” or “very” interested in informing local and state officials about topics they care about.
This week, they’re reaching out to the convention-goers — people they say would be Brigade’s “super users” — to get them on board. The idea is that exposure will trickle out from there toward voters who are less engaged.
“You have Facebook for your social life, LinkedIn for your professional life, Uber to get to work in the morning,” Mahan said. “Why not build a great consumer network around politics?”