The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Matt Mahan, co-founder and CEO of Brigade, a San Francisco startup attempting to drive citizen engagement with a new forum for expressing political opinions. Brigade released its first app for iOS and Android in June.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Joshua New: Sharing political opinions on social media platforms isn’t exactly a novel concept. What makes Brigade stand out?
Matt Mahan: Fortunately, there are a number of interesting startups, nonprofits, and academic institutions dedicated to helping people understand and engage with the political system. That’s a good thing because over the past 50 years, civic participation has continued to decline, leaving people feeling more powerless and disillusioned than ever before. But changing American democracy is not a one-company or one-idea project. Brigade’s approach is to complement these other resources by creating an easy and effective way for people to declare their beliefs, organize with others, and take action to shape the policies and elections affecting their lives.
That said, our platform is fairly unique as a social network that provides a safe space for people to weigh in on news and politics, and ultimately organize like-minded people around causes and issues they care about. On Brigade, people can find agreement without being disagreeable in a place specifically built for opinion expression, discourse, and decision-making—the building blocks of a functioning democratic system. Other popular consumer social platforms just aren’t engineered for these particular use cases.
New: What is the value of data on how people express themselves politically? Does it just mean more nuanced voter engagement or are there more profound insights to be gained?
Mahan: Data is the foundation of Brigade’s platform, which enables people to see how they align with their friends, neighbors and others on the issues that matter to them. This issue opinion and alignment data takes something very complex in the real world—What issues are people talking about? What do they think? Who agrees with me and why? Who agrees with me and lives near me?—and turns it into an organizing tool for anyone who is trying to get something done in their community. Before Brigade, it was very difficult to know which of your friends and neighbors cared about your issue and had a similar perspective on it.
Future releases over the next year or so will build on that issue opinion and alignment data by layering in tools for members of the Brigade community to start their own groups, take collective action, and align their values with their ballot choices. We’ll also roll out new tools and analytics for our campaign partners so they can turn their supporters’ voices into real influence in the political process.
New: How do you ensure your users stay engaged? Do you perform any kind of analysis about what content is the most compelling?
Mahan: We’ve been working hard over the past year to test technologies across multiple platforms that could start achieving our product goals, and at the same time test some of our assumptions about how people want to interact with each other as well as issue content. A starting point for this discovery phase was the creation of an off-brand app called Accord that was decommissioned when Brigade beta was released. Accord was online for several months and we updated it regularly, adding new functionality based on analytics and user feedback.
Accord had about 13,000 registered users who shared more than a million opinions on a range of topics during the test period. The average number of positions taken per user was 90 with the most popular topics being drug policy, minimum wage, healthcare, discrimination, and immigration. As I noted above, Brigade (modeled after Accord) is designed explicitly for the kind of sharing that is meaningful but not necessarily appropriate on other social platforms. If users feel as though their voice matters and they have supporters who share their views on Brigade, it’s a sign that our early analysis paid off.
New: How inclined are users to freely share potentially sensitive data about themselves, such as their stance on divisive political issues?
Mahan: I certainly understand the sensitivities of discussing politics with friends. Yet, there’s a countervailing force as well. There are often times in our lives when we are surrounded by friends or family and cannot wait to discuss an issue that has broken onto the scene. Issues like that—the ones that directly affect our lives or resonate with us for another reason—are a half-step away from politics. The fact is, Americans are opinionated and informed on a range of issues, from local matters to daily news to shifts in the political landscape. The reason we don’t see more of that conversation online today is that we haven’t built the right contexts and tools for it.
Almost 50 percent of Americans pay attention to civic issues around them, but are not actively engaged. Researchers found that the disengaged among us would take action if they had the right platform and motivators. By building a networked product explicitly for this purpose, we hope to bring millions of interested bystanders into the fold by amplifying their civic interests so that involvement becomes a cultural norm.
New: When we met, you described Brigade as a “mobile-first” platform. What does this entail, and why do you go with such an approach?
Mahan: Our smartphones can help us get a ride, a meal, a date, or a gift within minutes—and there’s massive potential for those devices to help us interface with our civic lives, too. Nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone and nearly 70% use it at least occasionally to follow news; 67% rely on it for sharing content about things happening around them; 56% turn to their handheld devices at least occasionally to learn about community events or activities; and about 40% use it to look up government services or information. Next-generation voters are leading the way. More than 90% of teens are online daily and about the same number use their mobile devices daily to go online at least occasionally. These numbers are only going to grow and it is important to make sure Brigade is as widely accessible as possible from the very beginning. That’s why we released our beta as native applications for iOS and Android, as well as a web-based product that is responsive to both desktop and mobile browsers. If Brigade is going to help improve democracy, we need to change the engagement model, and to do that, we need to meet people where they are.