Lessons From 2016 & What’s Ahead
With our first big product update of 2017 out the door, now feels like a good time for me to share more context on what we learned last year and how we’re evolving Brigade in response. I hope you’ll also take a moment to check out the latest version of Brigade and share your initial reactions with us here.
First, let me step back: When the Internet went mainstream in the 1990s, many people predicted that it would infuse and transform every aspect of life. Since then we’ve steadily moved closer toward that vision (just think of how we stay in touch with friends, get around town, find dates, and collaborate with coworkers). Yet, the Internet has had very little impact on how ordinary voters participate in their democracy, much less the amount of influence they wield. The average voter today is neither more informed nor engaged, and certainly does not possess greater trust in government, despite the ubiquity of digital connectivity and tools (even if it has helped candidates raise more money and deliver more ads).
This is why we are building Brigade.
We believe that technology can play a role in increasing the amount and the quality of public participation in our political process that in turn will produce a more representative and effective government for all.
So what did we learn in our first political cycle as a company, and how is the Brigade app changing to reflect these lessons? Let me share a few big lessons that you’ll start to see reflected in our product this summer and beyond:
Lesson #1 — Most voters are not comfortable debating politics with strangers.
If you’re a past user of Brigade, the biggest change you’ll notice is the removal of public debates. While a small subset of Brigadiers come each day for the thrill of intellectual sparring, we’ve seen repeatedly, through multiple iterations of the product, that the vast majority of users were turned off by this experience. We also think that with large social platforms like Twitter and Reddit providing reasonably good public spaces for debate, our mission is better served by focusing our small team on the peer-to-peer political organizing tools that none of the major social platforms offer. That said, debate is not the same as self-expression. In coming releases we will reintroduce tools that help voters express their beliefs, find like-minded allies and discuss the issues that matter to them.
Lesson #2 — Voters want to have political impact between elections.
Last year, our product reflected a singular focus on voting in the Presidential Election. Since then we’ve witnessed an unprecedented surge in political advocacy from voters across the ideological spectrum. They are not satisfied with being asked to vote every two to four years. They want to be in the arena year-round, showing up at meetings, talking with their representatives, demanding legislative action and much more. The new targeted petition tool we’ve added to Brigade in this release will allow voters to advocate to their actual elected representatives during the legislative cycle. Building on this tool, we see exciting opportunities to help voters understand how well their individual representatives’ decisions reflect their interests over time.
Lesson #3 — Voters have potential power in numbers, but need organization to realize it.
While the national surge in political awareness is promising, it alone isn’t enough to produce the kinds of outcomes most voters want. As an example, on January 21st, more than 700,000 people in Los Angeles joined the global Women’s March. Just six weeks later, only half as many people voted in the city’s primary election, which included a number of significant ballot measures in addition to the mayor’s race. Turnout was at an all-time low despite historically high levels of off-cycle political interest. Rallies and marches are great for building community and momentum but they ultimately have little impact if they don’t translate into votes. This is something that disciplined and effective advocacy organizations like the NRA have known for years, hence their consistent legislative victories at all levels of government. Today’s civic leaders need free and powerful online tools that lower barriers to building real political power where it ultimately matters: at the ballot box.
Lesson #4 — Voters thrive on shared experiences.
Even our most avid debate participants tell us that they come back for the relationships they’ve built on Brigade, not because they believe our former debate tool helped change others’ minds or create concrete impact. We suspect this also explains the high number of people who carved out an afternoon to march with their friends, but didn’t want to cast a vote six weeks later. We are fundamentally social animals. We believe a product experience that enables social interaction and collaboration will always be more satisfying (and impactful) than one that provides purely informational or functional utility. Therefore, our task going forward is to help voters build deeper community on Brigade while also introducing better tools to channel that social capital into real political power and impact.
There’s much more to come. This is just our first update in a series of big changes we’re making to Brigade this year. Look for another product update in about a month. As always, we want to hear your thoughts on how Brigade can help you change the world.
Finally, thanks for being an engaged voter. Our country’s future depends on you and people like you doing the hard work of citizenship.