What do your friends think about regulating Airbnb in your city? What’s the most important issue the U.S. faces? Can student protests help end racism on college campuses? Brigade applies the social network model to provide everyone, from neophytes to political junkies, a space to talk politics.
Sean Parker, co-founder and executive chairman of Brigade, discussed the state of politics in the U.S. with Mashable, saying, “Democracy was not designed for a world where we have over 300 million people.” That’s where Brigade’s social approach to politics comes in. Unlike Facebook, which along with political opinions publishes baby pictures and life announcements, Brigade focuses on issue-oriented conversations that it hopes will lead to organization and action. Its app aims to re-energize civic participation in the U.S. by providing a forum to articulate and debate political and civic issues.
In June 2014, Brigade announced its acquisition of Causes, the world’s largest online campaigning platform and one of the first apps on the Facebook platform, and political advocacy startup Votizen. A year later, Brigade launched in beta. Its small cohort of testers has taken more than 3 million issue-based positions in the first few months.
Mahan, who worked as Causes’ CEO, says civil discourse is “just the first step” toward legislative results that will lead to change. The first test of that occurred in November with pilot cities San Francisco and Manchester, N.H. Brigade added a “Ballot Guide” to its app ahead of those elections, providing an opportunity for people to learn more about what was on the ballot and a chance to recruit others to pledge his or her vote to a specific candidate or initiative. “The election is an important test case for many of our theories about the role that technology can play in the political process,” Mahan says. In San Francisco, Brigade users’ vote pledges mirrored the election outcomes for all of the candidates and ballot propositions except for one district.
Brigade has continued to build tools into its app since releasing in beta, but Mahan says the startup has only scratched the surface of what’s needed to transform how people engage in politics. The company will release a series of additional tools this year with plans to target citizen influence within the electoral process.
“We’ve heard from many people that they want to actually do something about the issues they care about, not just discuss and debate,” Mahan says. Some may find that surprising when considering that nearly 60 percent of Brigade’s users are millennials — not exactly the largest age demographic in midterm voter turnout.
That doesn’t necessarily equate to apathy. About 61 percent of 18-to-35-year-olds think it’s important to be active citizens, but only one-fourth say they’re doing a good job themselves. Brigade aims to help bridge the gap between beliefs and action for digital natives who are already used to sharing their opinions on social media.
Besides Parker, Brigade is also backed by Ron Conway and Marc Benioff who contributed to the $9.5 million Series A. The company currently employs roughly 50 people with its headquarters in San Francisco and a small office in Washington, D.C.
“People have told us that before Brigade, they didn’t have a safe place online to express themselves and connect with others around issues and shared values,” Mahan says. “If Brigade can be an engine of positive change for our democracy after more than 50 years of declining civic participation, we’ll all be better off.”