Inside Brigade: A look at the bet Sean Parker’s making on his ‘civic network’


Brigade co-founders James Windon, president, and Matt Mahan, CEO (photo credit: Andrew Noyes)

Since word came earlier this summer that Sean Parker, the tech world billionaire, had launched a new company called Brigade in an attempt to figure out how technology might be used to upgrade the American political and civic experiences, there are those of us who have hungered for details. What is this Brigade thing, exactly?

Co-founders James Windon and Matt Mahan stopped by for a chat in The Washington Post cafeteria this week. And they admitted that while there are some answers they know and will share, and some they know and won't, there's much that they're still working out. To answer one immediate question, Brigade will be a stand-alone social network along the lines of the special-purpose site LinkedIn.

During the talk the two described a site that will tap people's deep well of civic and political impulses, engaging them on matters both big and national and small and local, both tied to elections and connected to the simple matters of civic life like supporting the personal causes you believe in.

One thing they've got locked down, said Windon, Brigade's president, is the problem: "Stop anyone on the street and they acknowledge that this thing" -- politics, our civic lives -- "is broken. It's just not working for them at the moment, and it isn't getting better."

Indeed, Brigade is meant to be a "civic network," as the company puts it, less akin to civic tools like petition sites and write-your-rep apps than a social network like, say Facebook. (You might remember Parker, Brigade's executive chairman, from his days serving as the inspiration for Justin Timberlake's character in "The Social Network.") But where Facebook is mostly a place where you want to go because it's fun and LinkedIn where you have to go because it's good for your work life, said Mahan, the company's chief executive, "we don't really have a tool at any [real] scale that's really custom built for the citizen."

Why would someone go to Brigade? And what will he or she do when he or she gets there? The team is a bit clearer on the first than on the second.

Asked about the action that Brigade users will be expected to take -- Post updates? Consume content? Give money? -- Windon winced a bit before saying, "We're still a little loose on talking about the specific of that," though he suggested that just about anything you might do on another social network you might do on Brigade, including a "collective action" component that might indeed differentiate this network from others.

One hurdle that pops up as soon as you begin thinking about Brigade's potential is how to attract users to a good-for-you social space. (Less so the question of how to attract users to a new social network when there are already so many others; keep in mind that Instagram is only three years old.) But in digging through research and user group testing, said the pair, they concluded that they've got a great deal working in their favor.

For one thing, said Mahan, there are about half a million elected officials in the United States; each citizen is represented by about 50, and yet, he said, "I've never met anyone who knows the names of more than 10 of them." At the same time, the other 40 elected officials are making consequential decisions. That's an "information inefficiency," said Mahan, that Brigade can help solve.

Still, they know they're going to be competing with attention for everything from Snapchat to ESPN -- "That's the conundrum," Windon said -- but they've come to believe that they have human nature on their side. "People want to be seen as," said Mahan, shrugging his shoulders, "being good. And part of being good is being engaged and having a cause you champion, and being informed, and doing things." ("It's achievement of pleasure and avoidance of pain," added Windon.) And our daily lives used to support those impulses, Windon said; after all, he points out, the Sierra Club was called that because its members used to actively gather on weekends. But in recent years especially, he said, there has been a "decoupling" of our social and civic lives. And the latter can barely compete with the flood of online noise.

Brigade is aimed at capturing and amplifying those civic impulses so that they become a cultural norm (again). The best way to do that at this moment in the 21st century is, said Mahan, by "building a networked product."

The project has attracted its share of negative reaction and prediction of failure from those in the civic tech world, and probably not helping matters is how Brigade has chosen to describe itself, such as Windon's talk of "consumerizing politics." But the pair chalk it up, at least in part, to the fact that their early public engagement around Brigade seemed a bit ahistorical, with the suggestions that they saw themselves as parachuting in from Silicon Valley to save democracy. They failed to acknowledge others in the space, they say, now name-checking organizations and projects like the legislative platform PopVox, the civic coder group Code for America, and the transparency group the Sunlight Foundation.

Said Windon, "The companies that have been built in the last 10 years without the venture capital that an organization like ours might have access to" -- Brigade has raised more than $9 million from the likes of Parker, famed venture capitalist Ron Conway, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and others -- "and without the deep technology base that we have access to have done incredible things, and we probably could have gone more out of our way to indicate that."

In fact, team Brigade knows better than most that it isn't the first group to attempt to use technology to rewire how Americans engage in politics.

Brigade takes much of its DNA from Causes, the company where Mahan and Windon met and which, along with the platform Votizen, was acquired by Brigade in June. Causes ended its run as an independent company as, mostly, a targeted Facebook plug-in used by nonprofit groups to fund-raise and build their e-mail lists. But Causes, with Parker and Joe Green as its co-founders, launched in 2007 with bigger ambitions, as a standalone hub for wide-ranging civic engagement around, well, causes. And it was, in many ways, a second attempt at something begun with Essembly, launched by Green in 2005 as a platform for free-flowing political discussion and action -- or something much like, it seems, what nearly a decade later Brigade aspires to be.

In other words, civic tech's road to the present is littered with the carcasses of projects inspired by the idea that people are dying to positively engage in politics, if only they had the right tools.

But, Mahan and Windon point out, a lot has changed over that short history. "More than anything, the Internet has changed," Mahan said. Social networks have "gotten incumbency," said Windon, meaning that Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and others have become part of the fabric of our everyday lives. But, too, the technological infrastructure that's needed to support the sort of flexible, scalable online experience they're imaging is a rather new invention. Add in the fact that, in large part thanks to Facebook, the American public has grown to accept the idea that our online identities should mirror our offline ones.

"It's just a totally different place than it was six years ago," Mahan said of the online world.

Brigade has hired political staff experienced in the ways of Washington, including former Washington-based Facebook staffers Andrew Noyes and Adam Conner. And it has tapped some big-name Silicon Valley technologists. Famed engineer David Henke, who runs all of LinkedIn's IT systems, has joined the board, and as CTO (and fellow co-founder) they have brought on John Thrall, who was responsible for Yahoo's mobile experience. The ambition is to do both the politics and the technology really well. Said Windon, "It's the best of both worlds."

Whether Brigade succeeds, Mahan said, will be "binary." Either it reaches a critical mass of, say, tens of millions of users, and can thus make money, through such means as advertising and access to "tools." Or it doesn't and it fails. They've got to start somewhere, the two said.

But the rest us will have to wait a bit longer to see Brigade in action: The team said that they're hoping to have a beta version of the site live in January.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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