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Joe Green on Project Agape and Online Democracy

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, June 6 2007

[Yesterday, I spent an hour on the phone with Joe Green, co-founder of Project Agape, a still-partially-in-stealth start-up that is developing political social networking tools and platforms. It launched with a major new application built for Facebook Platform, called Causes. In the interview, Green talks about what he learned from his first experiment in building an online social network tuned around politics (See my March 2006 PdF article "Essembly.com: Finally, a Friendster for Politics"), his theories of online organizing, new features that Causes is going to roll out, tools Project Agape is building for MySpace and elsewhere, how to deal with privacy concerns, and how Causes differs from Change.org.]

MS: How does Project Agape connect to your first effort in political social networking,
Essembly.com?

JG: This is both very different and an evolution. This new entity legally owns Essembly. Project Agape started after I got together with Sean Parker, who was the cofounder of Napster, started Plaxo and was the founding president of Facebook. He had been thinking about how you do viral engineering, in fact he was a real pioneer of that at Plaxo. We teamed up last spring, and formally got together last June.

We both had the same fundamental belief that social networking changes everything. Online community has changed. Previously it was very separate from your offline friends. You were Bobafett73 on a Star Wars group and they didn’t know who you were online. Same with the DailyKos community—I passed through YearlyKos in Las Vegas last year and it was interesting how people were meeting for the first time. These people didn’t know each other offline.

With Facebook, it’s a reflection of the real community. One of the key themes that we brought out in Marc [Zuckerberg]’s speech announcing Platform (which I helped write) was the idea of the social graph. As an example of the power of the social graph, Facebook has twice the number of photos of any other site—even though the tool is clunky and the resolution stinks--because it’s laid over that social graph.

Sean and I have the same fundamental belief, coming from different angles—him from the consumer internet and me from grass-roots organizing. The idea is to help people tap into the power of their social network. Essembly taught us about how to have a decentralized large-scale conversation. But it wasn’t inherently viral and didn’t scale. To grow it, I had a bunch of nonprofit groups basically spam their lists. Distribution is 95% of the game. I had what Sean calls the “field of dreams” problem, which is the belief that if you build something interesting they just come. Sean has amazing insight into distribution.

The basic challenges of democracy online are how to help people find each other and then help them do things. First you need a large-scale conversation—but discussion boards don’t scale well. Then you need to do something, donate money or whatever. With Facebook, we’ve got this existing community with a very strong network of connections, but the question is “does our generation suck.” I think the answer is no.

One of the counterintuitive lessons of organizing is that volunteers want to be held accountable; it affirms that their work matters. The other side of this is its impact on nonprofits and presidential candidates (soon to be offered). We’ve announced ten large nonprofits for the launch, and reaching out to hundreds more. Under the current system, they pay 30%-plus in fundraising costs, traditionally. Small organizations often can’t even raise money because of the high upfront costs. The competition is about how big you are, not how cool your ideas are. You have a classic long tail problem also, with fundraising traditionally, since it doesn’t pay to reach out to younger smaller donors. So no one is really trying to reach out to them. There’s also a lot of enthusiasm there, to be tapped.

If you take it from 30% up front, to a 4.5% transaction fee, and move to a peer-to-peer system, you in effect are taking it back to a more chapter-based kind of system, such as what we had in the early days of civic life in America. That was more powerful because you had more organizational depth then. Here we think you can recreate that. We already see it happening. A Cause with hundreds or thousands of members can have a nonprofit reach out to them, rather than it spamming them in the first place. Their friends have brought them in, so their friends can be the ones who communicate with them. In grass-roots organizing, you want to organize yourself out of a job.

MS: Whose problem are you solving?

JG: I think there are several. We’re solving the nonprofits’ problem, since the current means of raising money and attracting younger people is very very inefficient, number one. More broadly and more importantly, we’re engaging our generation. Young people want to get involved and impact the world around them and they don’t know how. We are providing the tools for people to leverage their own network of friends.

MS: But if the issue is actually having an impact, as opposed to just declaring an identity with an issue, where are Causes being measured for their effectiveness? I don’t see that anywhere on the current version.

JG: You’re right, that hasn’t been built out. But we think we’re creating a marketplace of causes, and people will judge them based on what they’re doing. Someone will create a Cause promoting SaveDarfur.org, and someone else will create one for Genocide Intervention Network. And people will argue which one is more effective. We will very shortly be adding features that will allow for conversations on a Cause page, like wall posts and media posts.

It’s important also to make a distinction between a cause and nonprofit. There could be a 1000 Causes aiming to help SaveDarfur.org, with lots of different leaders and networks and lots of people reaching out in many ways. It all ends up helping SaveDarfur.org, which is good.

Keep in mind that right now Facebook doesn’t notify you when something happens within a Group. Groups on Facebook are basically bumperstickers. We will have the ability to let you know when something new happens in a Cause. In Groups today, the only people who check back are the super-hard-core people. Causes are also going to be able to switch their beneficiary. This is where a lot of the Essembly stuff is going to be important, the deliberation component.

We’re certainly not going to create a large organization that is going to rate non-profits on how well they do. We can’t send people to Africa to look over the shoulder of different aid groups, or what have you. But what you can do, is expose people to a situation where non-profits are competing over getting your support.

I have no doubt that people in Facebook can afford to give $10-$20 a year, the vast majority of them are college students after all. Nobody ever asked me for money, in fact. But imagine if we can get them to start doing that. Ultimately I want to create a system where money doesn’t matter, but people with good ideas who are good at organizing.

MS: Where are you headed?I know you can’t get too far into the details, but what is your ambition for Project Agape?

JG: The large scale goal for this is to build a set of tools that empowers people to realize the potential of tapping into their own networks. Facebook is the first step. We want to do that everywhere. Certainly we’ll do it on MySpace, which doesn’t allow as much integration unfortunately. And we’ll do some freestanding stuff. This is democracy online. The internet is great at removing the costs of getting people together and deciding what they want to do.

Take the issue of Darfur. People can form a group that gets really huge and donate a lot of money and folks might take that more seriously. That Cause has over 40,000 members and it’s raised like $4,000 already. We haven’t even optimized getting people to give more money.

In the long term, if we can create a system where anyone can organize, knows how to get their friends together…If you think of the evolution of democracy in America, it started with a small elite who almost knew each other face-to-face. But as the country got bigger, the concern was how will it scale, and it didn’t work very well. A guy sat on his porch for a presidential campaign and only spoke to the people who visited him. That didn’t work well. And then you had the invention of mass media, which was at least a form of communication, even if it was one way. People were exposed to debates for example. Now we’re trying to go full circle, many-to-many on a large scale rather than a small scale.

We’re not reinventing the wheel, but just taking what’s worked and scaling it up. It’s about social connection and groups.

MS: I know Facebook is positioning itself to be the “social operating system” for the internet, but this raises serious concerns about privacy, the moreso as we get more politically engaged on things like Causes. How do we know this private corporation is going to always protect our privacy? Do you want people knowing so much about your social and political networks and passions? Wouldn’t it be better if we could control this information ourselves, and also combine it with the other social networks or sites we belong to?

JG: No one has figured out how to do social networking in another way. You want to be where your friends are, and it’s very hard to move them somewhere else. Could you have a profile that you own and move around with and you own that information? I don’t know to what degree that’s possible. It’s not the problem I’ve tried to solve, honestly.

Facebook is basically saying that social networking is a utility. I know the guys who run Facebook and they take very seriously their job as stewards of a social good. They take your privacy very seriously. When you donate to a Cause thru Facebook, the nonprofit doesn’t get that information. The only people who get it are people who are in your social network – because they can get access to your profile. But you decide that.

MS: How do you relate to Change.org?

I don’t know. When they first launched we tried to reach out to them and they didn’t get back to us. Which is fine. They are certainly trying to do similar stuff. They launched a separate network. We started on Facebook, which has led to us having a lot more users. I really admire what they’re trying to do.

They’ve taken the approach of offering the kitchen sink of activism—you can write letters to the editor, you can donate, you can make a commitment. We’re both trying to do something that is good for our world. Our strength is that we understand how to build a consumer product that is easy to use. We’ve chosen not to add all those functionalities—donations and awareness-raising are the two main actions we’ll support at this point. We think we’ll get distribution from those, and then we’ll have a lot of data about why people do those things and we’ll be able to decide what additional functions to add. If you throw them all at once at people, it’s too much. You also have really closely track, from the back end, what is working and what isn’t.

We’re having trouble keeping up as is. We gained 50,000 users yesterday. We’re up to 160-170,000 now. If anything we’re lucky that we launched at the end of the academic year. We’re not where iLike was, where in the middle of the night they were buying hundreds of servers.

MS: And are you making any money yet?

JG: At this point we aren’t even coming close to covering our costs. Of the 4.5% that gets taken out, 3% goes to JustGive, and then of the 1.5% we receive we have to pay most of that to JustGive for the processing of the checks to the nonprofits.

Why is this a venture finance company? We couldn’t build it to scale without doing it that way. We did a first round with the Founders Fund, the first people who invested in Facebook by the way. Sean is both our investor and my partner. Everyone at Founders Fund is fully on board with the social goals, they don’t expect us to maximize our investment. They want to do something that has a huge impact. The best analogy is a privately owned newspaper company—it’s a business but it has a huge social role too.