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How Brigade is Taking Shape: An Interview with James Windon

BY Alex Howard | Tuesday, November 25 2014

James Windon speaking at Fusion Riseup 2014

The following is an edited transcript of an interview that Alex Howard conducted with James Windon, the president of civic engagement startup Brigade, last Wednesday November 19 at the Fusion RiseUp event in Washington, DC. That morning, Brigade had announced that it was partnering with a “carefully curated” set of organizations: Rainforest Action Network, Americans for Tax Reform, the Drug Policy Alliance, Represent.Us, Generation Opportunity, Forecast the Facts, FreedomWorks and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

With more than $9 million in venture funding from Napster co-founder Sean Parker, Brigade has been amassing a staff of more than 50 while remaining quiet about how it plans to launch and grow a new social network for civic engagement. In this interview, Windon explains why he thinks there’s still room for “yet another social network” and how Brigade will attract users: “one of the biggest reasons that people have stopped participating civically is because their civic lives have become decoupled from their social lives,” noting that the company will be primarily focused on people’s relationship to local issues and down-ballot representatives. He also addresses the inevitable questions about a for-profit business entering the civic space, saying,“our best bet at how we will monetize is through advertising.”

Citing his prior experience helping run Causes, Windon adds,

...we believe we can craft certain types of advertising products and experiences that are creative to the user experience and that’s a big guiding principle for us….[At Causes,] what we were able to do, we worked with about seventy Fortune 500 brands, and the goal was to connect, in that case, consumers and donors with brands that shared their values. So if you believed in minimum wage reform, we could put you in touch with Macy’s who passed minimum wage reform.* If you’re concerned about texting and driving, we can talk to you about AT&T and the work they’re doing on texting and driving. And what we found was, looking at everything from surveys and qualitative data, to conversion rates, share rates, and quantitative data, those campaigns did really, really well and users enjoyed them, because they agreed with what they were doing. Similarly here, we don’t want to be in the business of aggressive persuasion. If you think the sky is blue, we don’t want to show you ads saying the sky is red. What we’re trying to do is connect people with brands, candidates, and organizations who share their values and then enable them to work offline with them to create the change they want.

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Q: At this point, what are you building at Brigade?

A: So what we’re trying to build is a consumer-facing social network that connects citizens around shared values and enables them to meaningfully and collectively interface with existing pieces of the political system, ultimately designed to try and fix what we think is the biggest problem facing democracy--that people are no longer at the center of it.

Q: Jumo, which Chris Hughes founded, seems a lot like what you’re talking about here. What’s different? How are you going to try to address the mistakes or choices they made?

A: Yeah, I think we’re different for a few reasons. Number one, I think Jumo was explicitly philanthropic. We are not. We’re explicitly focused on politics and all the elements of politics. Obviously that’s going to involve electoral components. Based on our announcement this morning you can say it’s also going to involve issue advocacy, interfacing with the legislative/rules-making/regulation systems. So that’s one difference.

The second difference is: Jumo exclusively - and this is the same thing that Causes did - relied on the Facebook graph. It was going to be an application, whether it was I think Jumo having to use Facebook connect website, just because it was allowed to do it at the time. but the assumption was that Facebook represents the super-set of relationships needed to create a social network and all you needed to do was enable people to pull out of that set of relationships a subset which would then be Jumo.

We don’t think that’s where the world’s ended up now. We think if you look at special purpose platforms like Instagram, Vine, if you look at different verticalized platforms like LinkedIn or AngelList or GitHub, what you’re seeing is that there are sets of relationships, and contexts, and media types and content types (probably the same thing) that warrant different relationships in different contexts.

So that’s a long way of saying that we plan on building our own network because we think that in order to try and fix those problems I described initially (sorry if I’m so loquacious here) we think that there are a set of relationships that are different from those that are on Facebook.

So those are the two big differences. There are other things...

Q: So this is going to be a brand new network, right?

A: Yes.

Q: This is a challenge. How do you get around this issue of social networking fatigue? It does seem like there’s a new thing that keeps coming up again and again.

A: Yep.

Q: Why do you say "join this" as opposed to an existing network? It’s one more thing to pay attention to, one more thing to give my data to, there’s one more thing to worry about. What do you say to people? Why do this? Or why will they do this since this isn’t going to be a thing for a while — sometime next year?

A:: Sometime next year. Hopefully first quarter or the first half of the year. I’m still locking it down. You have to try and get those engineers, you know. You wrangle them.

Q: Will you have a closed beta at some point?

A: Probably yeah, we’re still working that out. But probably.

Q: But not yet.

A: Not yet. To answer that question--user acquisition, largely, and network fatigue. I think from a macro perspective, we believe that there are two kind of buckets that people are spending most of their time in... One is personal, all the things that you like to do. One is professional, which we think of as all things that you need to do. We think that most of the social networks that are being created at the moment, that you’re referring to, largely fit into those two buckets.

Q: Yep.

A And they offer incremental value on the existing set of networks out there, which is why there is network fatigue. Why would I join Ello? OK, slightly different with a different business model, but largely it’s the same set of people on Facebook and, to be honest with you, with any network product the more people on it, the better it’s going to be.

Q: Sure.

A: We think there’s actually a third sector that makes up people’s lives which we think of as the "civic sector," although that’s kind of a word from like the 1940s so we’re trying to think of...

Q: Civic tech is now a thing in my world, though.

A: Great. We think that is a large enough tranche of people's lives that warrants its own network. We think it’s a differentiated enough type, and has a differentiated enough set of experiences and relationships that it shouldn’t feel or look a lot like those other platforms that are around consuming content and interacting with friends, getting caught up on life events, or doing things that will move you forward professionally.

Q: One of the things that I’ve covered a lot is identity infrastructure online. Are you going to use OpenID Connect to let people choose their existing identities and have it federated like that? Or is this going to be yet another identity for people to have?

A: Sorry, but I don’t know what that is. Sort of like logging in with Facebook? Is that the idea?

Q: Yeah. So, there’s a bunch of different ways that governments are going about giving people citizen services. One model is in India, where they have a twelve-digit number, biometrics, and a whole country is going in that direction. Another model is happening in the US and UK, where they’re offering federated identity. Right now, we’re behind in this country. The UK is rushing ahead, and they’re letting people use their mobile number...

A: How interesting.

Q: … for other kinds of things that exist, that they have already, to get higher levels of access, and they’re moving towards the OpenID Connect, which is the next generation of federated ID. So the question is, are you going to let people use identities they’ve established elsewhere, or ask them to create entirely new ones?

A: I think our assumption at the moment is that you’ll be able to log in with an e-mail address. Is that responsive to your answer at all?

Q: Somewhat. Multiple options?

A: There’ll be multiple options. It’s going to be launched on iOS, Android, and desktop, so we want to enable …

Q: That’s platform, though.

A: That’s platform. In terms of actual identity? I think it will be… you know, e-mail address is an obvious one. To the extent that we want to be leveraging existing social networks to try to, hopefully, select people on those networks — Facebook, Twitter, LInkedIn, Google — yeah, we’re going to enable that.

Q: To take this in a slightly different direction, this past midterm election we saw low participation rates compared to other nations. With elections in other countries, you’ve got 50 - 60 - 70 percent.

A: Yep. I think we saw 900 million people vote in India. Something like that.

Q: Yes. You see people who are literally going to the polls in Afghanistan, even though they’ve got a joint of their finger cut off.

A: Yep.

Q: In this country, we saw 40% participation, and in young people, even lower than that. We know that in presidential election years, historically, the demographics change, with more young people voting. Still, overall participation is really low.

A: Yep.

Q: Can technology change that? And if so, how?

A: Well, we hope so. We hope so, and that’s certainly one of the goals we’re trying to: achieve.

Q: What’s the strategy to get there?

A: You know, when people think about technology and politics, particularly around elections, their minds are invariably drawn to two types of problems or types of solutions that typify technological access. That is to say, they say first of all, it’s focused on information inefficiency — people don’t know who their elected officials are — and that’s true. There are over 500,000 elected officials in this country. Your average American is represented by about 45 electeds. Most people can name three. Right? So there is that information gap, and people feel confused.

Related to that is the transparency issue. Again, a classic technology thing, with a marketplace solution. We just need to make politics more transparent, and that will reduce cynicism. We totally think that those two pieces need to be solved, but we think that they’re necessary but not sufficient.

We think the other piece — and this is why we’ve gone for the social approach — is that we actually think one of the biggest reasons that people have stopped participating civically is because their civic lives have become decoupled from their social lives. It used to be they were one and the same, right? You look back in the mid-1950s, and you know Robert Putnam wrote this book on this, and everyone knows this. But in essence you’re talking about often your most social interactions were those based around something civic, going to a town hall meeting, going to a Boys and Girls Club meeting, or going to a Sierra Club meeting. Whatever it happened to be.

Q: Going to protest a war?

A: There you go. A whole lot of things. And what we’ve seen is that ways that you can act socially have just skyrocketed through technology in the last 5 years but what left behind is a whole lot of experiences that were civic in nature that have become not such, like mail-in in voting. I think it’s generally a good idea to break down the friction in relation to participating civically, but in doing that you’ve now made voting akin to paying your bills. Sitting by yourself at the kitchen table. and as much as you would hope that ‘oh now it’s easy, now it’s frictionless, people will do it’ I think that’s…

Q: Well, Alaska just enabled voting online.

A: There we go.

Q: …but anonymity is no longer a thing. You give that away. That was a big thing, that was a missed thing in the election.

A: Alaskans are out there, man.

Q: Well, they literally are! They’re so far away, but that actually led them to do it online.

A: Yeah, it’s incredible. That’s a really good point, actually.

Q: It’s a gigantic state… So, campaigns are really focused on getting technology to be used for their purposes.

A: Yeah.

Q: They want to get their people, who they think are going to vote, to the polls, and they want to find people who might be convince-able and then target them, and you’re seeing all the different ways they’re doing that.

A: Yep.

Q: I mean the fascination with 'big data' in the Obama campaign has subsumed the fact that both parties have a ground game. Both parties send people out with mobile apps. Both parties are trying to nudge people to use their social networks to target ads. So the campaigns are all about this. What’s the role of Brigade when the campaigns are all in that space?

A: I think it’s twofold. One, I think it’s about who’s your primary customer. And for Brigade, that primary customer is the citizen. The goal of this is to build a network that can connect citizens. And if we can do that, then we would invite and encourage candidates and elected officials to come on to that platform on the terms of the citizens who are there. So I think that’s one thing. We will ultimately interface with the existing structures of government, we hope. But there’s a difference between building tools for them from the get-go and then trying to plug the lists in, which is what this is really about, list management, versus building a social network.

Related to that, and this is a second bigger point, is that we’re not just focused on elections. You know, that captures the zeitgeist every 23 months or every 47 months, but the reality is we want to talk about what’s happening the rest of the time. So, what we’re trying to do is build a product or a network that lasts beyond the elections, because at the moment what’s happening to those guys — and this is just the nature of the beast, I don’t begrudge candidates or campaigns that are doing this — you have to fundraise aggressively, and they’ve got 90 days to spend it. You’ve got to spend it all, because the first Wednesday in November that money is useless to you. And then what you do with all that tech, for half the people it usually gets thrown away.

Q: You mentioned customers. Y’all are not a nonprofit.

A: We’re not a nonprofit.

Q: Where’s the money come from? Right now, it’s coming from funders, but down the road…?

A: I think that our best bet at how we will monetize is through advertising. That’s our best bet at the moment. We believe however that…

Q: That means you have to get to scale, massively?

A: Totally agree. But this is a very binary business in that way anyway, when you think about it. Any social network that doesn’t reach scale isn’t a particularly good social network. So if we’re a good social network, then we’re a good product, and if we’re a good social network, we’re a good business. So I think in those things, it’s kind of binary.

The one thing I would say about the advertising is that we believe we can craft certain types of advertising products and experiences that are creative to the user experience and that’s a big guiding principle for us. And let me just give you one thing, I’m sure you hear that from every company, so let me just give you one piece which is, it’s something we’re very focused on at Causes, actually, and we’ve had a lot of success with. What we were able to do, we were able to do, we worked with about seventy Fortune 500 brands, and the goal was to connect, in that case, consumers and donors with brands that shared their values. So if you believed in minimum wage reform, we could put you in touch with Macy’s who passed minimum wage reform.* If you’re concerned about texting and driving, we can talk to you about AT&T and the work they’re doing on texting and driving. And what we found was, looking at everything from surveys and qualitative data, to conversion rates, share rates, and quantitative data, those campaigns did really, really well and users enjoyed them, because they agreed with what they were doing.

Similarly here, we don’t want to be in the business of aggressive persuasion. If you think the sky is blue, we don’t want to show you ads saying the sky is red. What we’re trying to do is connect people with brands, candidates, and organizations who share their values and then enable them to work offline with them to create the change they want.

Q: So is that the theory of change? You’re trying to aggregate interest and demand around the issues people care about? And then that aggregated interest will then interface with offline institutions in some way?

A: Yeah, at a high level that’s it. I think, it is, the one thing is the aggregation of issues is certainly a core principle of ours. We think that politics has a bad name, and rightfully so. People don’t care about politics, but they care about issues. They care about stuff. Everyone has something or somethings.

Q: OK, we’re in DC, and everyone here know that politics are the way you get your issues addressed.

A: Sure.

Q: It’s compromise. It’s not naked efficiency moving through an app. It’s making deals with people who are different than you but creating shared interests around it. And we’ve just seen two political failures in the Senate yesterday, which is all about this. One of them fell two votes short, and that was NSA reform, the USA Freedom Act. The other was one vote short, which was Keystone XL.

A: Yeah, right.

Q: So you know, that’s politics.

A: Yep.

Q: And there are issues there. Environmental issue here, surveillance issue there, that couldn’t quite crack the nut of the political side, because someone couldn’t twist the arms needed. Is that something technology can help with?

A: I think so, yeah. I think that the first thing I would say is that, and people will assess us and think about us in terms of what’s happening inside the Beltway. I do want to be clear that for us we’re very, very interested in what happening down-ballot. We’re interested in state officials. We’re interested in local. “All politics is local”--we believe in that. And so how that interfaces with our product initially we’re not sure, but we do, we’re interested in the 50% of the 500,000 elected officials who gained office by less than 1,000 votes. That, to us, is something that social media should interface with really really well.

The compromise that is politics will always be the compromise that is politics, and I don’t think technology is going to change that. I think what technology can offer is the ability for everyday people to act collectively, wield influence collectively, and then interface with existing machinations of power and influence and work together with them. I think that, you know, you do have to meet the system where it is. And the reality is the system at the moment is one that is characterized by compromise, is characterized by professional organizations. One of the reasons we announced our initial batch of launch partners was the acknowledgement that there are professional organizations out there doing terrific work, the ability for everyday people and groups of everyday people that interface with those organizations and work with them on the issues they care about is a terrific experience, and important if what we’re trying to do is not just talk about change but actually make a change.

Q: So, last one: there is a civic tech movement. It’s something I’ve been writing about, and to some extent I was part of when I was at O’Reilly, and still very much involved with today. There’s a release of a lot of data coming from people who created these commons. And there’s an issue about demand and third-party use of it. Are you going to be involved in helping to create standards around data, or to encourage the use of data standards in terms of the release of, say, the 'civic graph' of politicians, right? Or making municipal codes computable, because then that can see how people’s activism can play out and see where the pressure points are, or to working with other civic startups? There are some tensions around the name of the company to begin with, Brigade, because there already were brigades.

A: OK, yeah. Of course.

Q: Where are you with interfacing with these existing pools of activists, supporting their efforts. You obviously got a lot of venture money. A lot of these folks don’t. Where are you going to be supportive and how and why?

A: Sure. Absolutely. I mean there’s so much good work being done by these organizations at the moment. We want to leverage it and contribute to it. I think that one of our principles is — and this comes back to questions of the binary nature of the network — is that we do need, our goal and our vision is to scale from the consumer or citizen perspective. Our hope is that if we can reach that scale, then we can contribute to actually influencing or leveraging decision-makers to do these things that we all agree is in the interest of the citizen. So if it is about codifying or organizing, a great example is the work the Voter Information Project is doing around organizing, codifying data of electeds. It’s one thing to go and have a conversation with a group of elected officials saying we’d love you to do this with 1,000 users or 100,000. What if that’s a million? What if that’s 10 million? What if it’s your constituents, what if it’s your voters?

And so for us it’s the more that we can build up this user base and membership that’s significant in size, our hope is that’s going to put us in a position to work more efficiently with these, interface more effectively and efficiently with the existing pockets of power and obviously do that alongside all the other folks who are doing it at the moment.

Transcribed by Ruby Sinreich

[*Editor's note: In the original version of this article, Windon's reference to Macy's included a parenthetical comment explaining that he was "referring to an instance when Causes partnered with Macy's in helping the company oppose minimum wage increases, and matched up users who shared that view with Macy's ads." A Brigade spokesman has since clarified that Windon was speaking of a "hypothetical" example of a possible partnership in support of Macy's position on the minimum wage.]