Brigade Joins Countable!
After two election cycles and nearly five years of building tools to empower voters to play a fuller role in their democracy, we are excited to announce that Brigade is joining Countable. We can’t imagine a better home for Brigade’s community and intellectual property. Countable — a longtime fellow leader in the civic tech space — shares our philosophy for deeper, more impactful civic engagement enabled by technology.
We started Brigade five years ago to test one big and risky idea: that we could empower voters to make their democracy more responsive by better organizing their political power through an online network. Our core belief, then and now, is that government works best when it works from the bottom up, with citizens setting the agenda, contributing new ideas, and holding their representatives accountable for solving our biggest challenges.
While new digital tools had begun remaking many other areas of life, from professional networking and dating to mobility and collaboration at work, we felt that our politics lagged severely behind. We observed that the average voter could not name most of their elected officials, much less what they were responsible for doing or how well they were doing it, which ought to be baseline knowledge in a functioning democracy.
Early on, we looked to network products like LinkedIn and Yelp for inspiration given their success connecting people around important areas of life and, in doing so, putting more information and better decision-making tools in the hands of individuals. In politics, power is often too concentrated in the hands of the few, which is something we set out to change. We felt that a decentralized network provided the best opportunity for voters to efficiently share information and self-organize for collective action. Individual voters may lack power, but large numbers of them organized around clear goals can and should be the most powerful force in our democracy.
We made an early bet on peer-to-peer discourse as the starting point for this new kind of civic network. While most people claim to dislike politics, we believed that in a safe social space they would share opinions about issues and news, and be interested in what their peers thought. To make opinion expression on Brigade safe, we structured the discussion to focus on building support for one’s beliefs and arguments while restricting unproductive back and forth between opposing camps.
This early bet paid off. On average, our first 30,000 users took nearly 100 agree/disagree “positions” each on issue-based statements and nearly 20% of them wrote freeform reasons in support of their positions. Since then, Brigade users have taken over 12 million positions, allowing us to help them discover and connect with other voters and candidates who share their values.
Positions were not only great for engagement, but they formed the foundation of a voter’s identity on Brigade. Rather than starting with oversimplified labels, such as Democrat and Republican, we felt strongly that civic identity on Brigade should be built upon one’s core values and beliefs, which allow for overlapping constituencies and the opportunity to bridge traditional partisan divides.
The 2016 election cycle was already heating up when we launched our first app. It turned out to be a wild election, and not only for Brigade! To help voters navigate the election, we built a robust ballot guide tool that showed voters the offices and ballot propositions that would appear on their real ballots, down to the most local offices in some places. Next to each office, a voter could see endorsements made by her friends and an “alignment score” that measured how well she aligned with other supporters of a given candidate (calculated using issue positions).
Nearly 250,000 voters nationwide used this “smart ballot guide” tool in 2016 and they in turn sent endorsement and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) messages to over 5 million friends.
But what really surprised us in 2016 was the discovery — two full months before the general election — that unusually large numbers of registered Democrats had endorsed Donald Trump on Brigade. While it was impossible to confirm at the time, Brigade appears to have been tracking the now famous Obama-Trump crossover voters, especially in Midwestern states, where we witnessed Democratic voter crossover rates four to five times higher than usual.
Because Brigade matches users to their official voter file records, we later confirmed that many of these voters were lower propensity voters than the average Hillary Clinton supporter on Brigade. This may have been why pollsters underestimated Trump’s performance in specific states. In fact, Brigade’s observed Democratic crossover rate correlated extremely closely with the magnitude of the gap between polling averages and actual results in most states:
While we had not set out to build a polling tool, these voter insights demonstrated that Brigade’s platform (and perhaps other non-traditional forms of online polling) could engage hard-to-reach voters in new and useful ways. Still, after the election, Brigade’s user experience was sorely lacking. We had mostly built election tools, but elections are rare, short duration events in the average citizen’s experience. For a platform that aspired to reach every voter and keep them civically engaged year round, we needed to broaden our approach.
We decided to rebuild Brigade from the ground up, preserving a few of the features that had performed well and cutting many others. One mistake we realized we had made in our implementation of the 2016 product was turning a version of position-taking into what we called “debates.” Debates allowed users to freely comment back and forth with anyone on the platform under the framing of a given position. We quickly learned that this level of openness resulted in less substantive discussion, more personal attacks, and fewer participants willing to add their voices: the opposite of our goals. By removing too many barriers, debates empowered the loudest and most aggressive voices in the room and degraded the experience for the vast majority. We reverted to the original position design as we reimagined the rest of the core experience.
To guide our work in 2017–2018, we developed a theory of change for how a user’s journey on Brigade might lead to real-world impact over time. We posited that a voter’s opinions (i.e. positions) should introduce her to other like-minded voters collectively organized into issue advocacy campaigns that track the legislative process. Moreover, we argued that an advocacy campaign’s collective action over time, and the responsiveness of the representatives to whom they advocate, should directly inform which candidates these voters endorse and ultimately vote for (as opposed to paid advertising and superficial media coverage driving electoral outcomes while policy outcomes remain mostly disconnected, as is all too common in our politics today).
Our view was not that opinion expression, issue advocacy and voting doesn’t already happen at scale, but that these forms of civic engagement are so disconnected from each other in real life that voters are unlikely to be able to align them in practice. Therefore, a given candidate is less likely to face real accountability for addressing her constituents’ concerns and voters are less likely to trust the system. This is less true in straightforward cases like climate change or health care policy at the federal level, where party affiliation offers a sufficient proxy for this kind of accountability. However, we believe that parties are generally poor proxies for representative accountability at the state and local levels and across the full spectrum of issues.
We began our work in 2017 by enhancing our advocacy tools to give voters better ways to reach their representatives between elections. Our petition tool dynamically targets a given voters’ representatives at a federal or state level, and includes key information about each signer based on their voter record. After signing a petition, a voter is prompted to either call or tweet her representatives directly. Staffers in a representative’s office can use Brigade’s public petition reporting to see district-specific information about their constituents’ advocacy on key issues.
We then built a tool called “Rep Tracker” that integrates with our advocacy actions to aggregate a voter’s individual actions and help her understand her representative’s responsiveness over time and across issues. Advocacy organizations and activists who run campaigns on Brigade are given a grading tool to publicly assess each advocacy target (i.e. representative) on the basis of votes, bill sponsorship, public statements and other citable facts. From a voter’s perspective, Rep Tracker provides a persistent and personalized report card on their representatives that grows with their engagement:
Finally, in the lead up to the 2018 Midterm election, we added endorsement tools for our advocacy campaign leaders to convert their grades into election support for the candidates who had been most responsive (or for the challengers to those less responsive representatives). In all, over a dozen national advocacy organizations across the ideological spectrum used Brigade’s candidate endorsement slates to communicate their issue-based endorsements to millions of voters on Brigade and beyond in this past cycle.
As we emerged from the 2018 cycle, we stepped back to reflect on our progress to date and our vision for the future. We had built a truly world-class product development team and culture as well as some of the most innovative and voter-centric tools in the civic space.
Yet we also acknowledged that after two election cycles Brigade had not achieved the user scale we know is required to fundamentally transform our politics. Interacting with hundreds of thousands and occasionally a few million voters a few times per year simply does not represent the scale or depth of engagement required to reorder how political power is organized and wielded in our country. For a company set up to be a civic moonshot, this was simply not good enough.
We learned that unlike ten years earlier — when a number of us at Brigade had collaborated to build Causes, one of the first and largest applications on Facebook, reaching nearly 200 million people worldwide and raising over $50 million for charity — attracting and retaining new users for a civic platform is exponentially harder today. This could be due to the consolidation we’ve seen amongst the big social platforms or a general saturation and fatigue in the app economy. It could also be that most voters find enough value in the civic engagement they already experience on already scaled networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, NextDoor and Reddit.
Regardless, as we assessed our position in the market we decided that our best prospect for lasting impact was to team up with another player in the space who has the brand trust, partnerships and momentum to eventually bring real scale to ideas that could be transformative if adopted by enough voters. We committed ourselves to finding a partner who shared our high standards for user data protection and support of the open source community.
Countable is that partner. In just a few years, Countable has driven over 35 million civic actions, and empowered millions of people to send over 12 million messages to Congress. They have demonstrated a true commitment to lowering barriers to civic entry, summarizing legislation and providing the tools that citizens deserve to meaningfully engage in the political process. They’ve also brought their expertise and technology to organizations, companies, causes, and brands. From The Humane Society, to EDF, to GLAAD, and many others, Countable is ushering in a new vision of action-driven communities and meaningful audience engagement.
Working with Countable on the acquisition in recent weeks has been a pleasure and has confirmed our deeply aligned values. With Countable’s support, Brigade worked closely with Facebook and a third-party consultant to conduct a comprehensive review of user data we’ve collected over the years. We decided to delete all non-essential user data. In total, we deleted billions of rows of user data that was no longer necessary for delivering the core app experience our users enjoy. That data might have had market resale value, but Countable agreed with us that selling it would violate the trust of users who signed up for a civic platform, not a data marketplace.
We also agreed to open source Brigade’s unique voter file matching algorithm so that others in the civic tech space could benefit from what we’ve learned. A number of leaders in the space noted that our voter verification tech could be valuable to their work. You can find this project on Github at https://github.com/civiccc along with multiple other open source projects that Brigade’s former engineers maintain.
Furthermore, Countable was supportive during our talks as we simultaneously focused on taking care of our team. While planning for the acquisition and IP transfer, we’ve done our best to help the exceptional team members who came together around Brigade’s mission land on their feet. As previously reported, Pinterest “acqui-hired” most of Brigade’s engineering team a few months ago, including Brigade Co-founder and CTO John Thrall and VP of Engineering Trish Gray. Other members of the Brigade team have found homes at companies and nonprofits around the country that are similarly mission-driven. And others of us are excited to serve as advisors and consultants to Countable on an ongoing basis.
I’m deeply grateful to our board and investors, as well as Bart Myers and Countable’s leadership, for giving us the time and space to treat our user community and our team members with the respect they deserve. Most entrepreneurs don’t get the opportunity to manage transitions as thoughtfully and carefully as we’ve had the opportunity to do.
Finally, I think I speak for the entire Brigade team and company alumni when I say that it has been the privilege of a lifetime to work on such a consequential mission with so many of the finest people I know. We not only helped millions of voters engage more meaningfully in their democracy, but we did so on a diverse, honest and hardworking team that always returned to our core values as we made decisions and learned from mistakes. I couldn’t be prouder to have been part of this journey and I am thrilled to cheer on Countable and other innovators in the space as they charge ahead with new approaches to making our democracy the one we all deserve.