Some initial reactions to Brigade.com

I was out of the country last week, so I missed the initial launch of Brigade.com. Alex Howard and Nancy Scola have already covered pretty much everything you’ll need to know about the site so far. (If you haven’t read them already, I recommend you spend a few minutes with them for background.)

Brigade is the latest in a long line of ventures aimed at giving everyday citizens the tools to become more civically connected and involved in politics.  Most of these efforts have fizzled.  I generally take a pretty skeptical approach to them.

The site has a few interesting wrinkles — it’s clearly built for mobile, and it’s far less reliant on cumbersome profiles than many of its predecessors.  It’s also at the beginning of a multi-stage launch, which makes it hard to tell whether some of the missing features (campaigning/organizing/mobilizing functions, in particular) are absent or just unfinished.

As I wrote a few months ago, there’s eventually going to be a tension between the users they want to attract and the eventual customers who will pay for the service. But that tension won’t surface in the early stages of development, while the site is trying to create traction with the inattentive American public. The current challenge (creating that traction/making the site “sticky”) is interesting in its own right.  I don’t know if Brigade will succeed or fail. It has a lot of money, a lot of talent, and a lot of buzz working in its favor. But it’s also trying to offer a product that simply might not be in demand. That’s a hard problem to solve.

Now that I’ve had the chance to look around the site a bit, two main points stand out:

  1. Banking on Gamification.

The core of the user experience right now is the stack of issue position cards. “The U.S. should remove the penny,” “Fracking should be banned,” “The voting age should be lowered to 16,” “Online marketplaces (like Amazon, eBay, Etsy, etc) should ban the sale of confederate flag merchandise.” You can choose between Agree, Disagree, and Unsure. You can type in an argument that describes your reasoning, or read and “upvote” other people’s reasons. And you can create your own topic for people to agree or disagree with. The more you participate, and the more people upvote your participation, the higher your “impact” score.

This is the basic logic of gamification. Create a simple reward structure that encourages people to engage in the actions you want them to take. Make it feel like a game, rather than a survey questionnaire. And gamification works… at least up until the moment when people get bored with your game, and find some other game instead.

The initial gamification play makes sense here. No one wants to set up yet another social network profile. The social-network-for-social-change model has failed too many times to generate much enthusiasm. So instead, Brigade is focusing us on easy civic tasks which provide a little fun and offer little psychic rewards. Along the way, they build a userbase, establish social ties, and amass data on those users. It’s a nice start.

But the big question is “what will keep people coming back?” I filled out 25 position cards at the dog park yesterday afternoon. It was brief fun. But will I open the app up tomorrow, and next week, and next month?

It reminds me of the early days of Foursquare, when I routinely “checked in” everywhere I went, amassing badges and mayorships throughout my Brooklyn neighborhood. Foursquare was a fun distraction for awhile. Then I found Angry Birds. That game was a lot more fun. I haven’t used Foursquare in years.

The gamified element of Brigade is an interesting start, but I’m not sure how long of a shelf life it provides.

  1. A “Public” Misperception?

The following quote, from Sean Parker in his interview with Nancy Scola, is illuminating:

“…the norms on Facebook dictate that ‘you obey a certain set of social rules on the kinds of things you share or don’t. When it comes to your civic identity or your political identity or your charitable identity, frankly you don’t want to express that side of yourself on Facebook. It’s not the right medium to do it.”

This strikes me as an important premise of the site: People don’t reveal their civic/political/charitable identity on Facebook. They’ll be more likely to do so on a separate site.

I’m not sure if the premise is correct, though. My Facebook newsfeed, for instance, is brimming with political articles. That’s because I have a lot of political friends, and they share political things. Facebook doesn’t discourage them from talking about politics or civil society. And those political friends also happen to be the people who are most likely to be early adopters of Brigade.

It sounds like Parker and his team are banking on the hope that the American public is filled with individuals who have a submerged civic or political identity, which they’ll happily reveal if given the right opportunity. But it’s also possible that (1) the public features a small subset of people who like talking politics and civics, (2) that subset is already doing so on Facebook, and (3) they’ll migrate to Brigade and poke around for a bit, providing an initial impression of early lift/viral success.

This means that if Parker is right about the public, we won’t actually be able to tell for the first few months. The early adopters of Brigade are already plenty comfortable talking politics on Facebook. So even if they flock to Brigade and get a kick out of the issue position card stack, it won’t demonstrate much about the potential demand among the broader, non-attentive public.  The real test will come later.

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I’m curious to see what the site’s initial growth looks like, and even more curious to see what features they roll out besides the issue position cards.  Building a user base beyond the usual suspects is going to be a very tough lift, though.  If my (admittedly cynical) read of the American public is right, then gamification and early adoption might produce phantom positive signals during this initial rollout phase.

3 thoughts on “Some initial reactions to Brigade.com

  1. I totally agree. I got bored of the app after the first 48 hours. Then I got really annoyed by the constant inundation of emails and push notifications from people asking me for my opinion.

    The created something that is diverting and novel – to a point. And something that is building up a unique data set that could be sold/advertised against in the future as a revenue generating strategy. But they didn’t build something that offers enough of a value proposition to maintain engagement with the app. In that respect, the phased launch seems like a potential mistake. This isn’t a minimum viable product because there’s not enough there to keep the user base active. That means they’ll need to have a hell of a PR push the next few times they launch new features to get people to come back and give it another try.

    Now that I’ve seen the app, I’m standing by my initial reaction. They’re just not doing enough here to solve the actual problem we have when it comes to digital civic engagement. People have plenty of ways to express themselves – on Facebook, Twitter and through a variety of methods that fall under the slacktivism/clicktivism framework.

    A digital breakthrough in civic engagement won’t come from offering more tools that serve the general public. It will come when we create the structures that allow the current digital tools to mean more within government (in academic jargon, we need to give our elected officials the analytics and listening tools to take the “thin” engagement of clicktivism and “thicken” it by making it more reliable and more actionable).

    Ten months since I wrote it, this still seems relevant:

    Better Listening Through Civic Technology
    https://medium.com/organizer-sandbox/better-listening-through-civic-technology-736c3af399ac

  2. That’s a great piece, Mike. I remembered the substance of it, but had forgotten that the initial impetus was Brigade.

    Yeah, I wonder if there’s enough here to qualify as a minimum viable product.

    I think the current launch might work a bit like the Romney ’12 “sign up for this app and we’ll text you who the VP is” play. Great list-builder. Then there’s nothing to do for awhile. But when the next thing rolls out, they’ve at least got a ready-made user base.

  3. Mike,

    Brigade plans on doing quite a bit more “to solve the actual problem we have when it comes to digital civic engagement” and overcome the slacktivism/clicktivism framework. We’ve been very clear that what we rolled out a week ago is just the first in a series of tools we’ll announce over the next year or so. From our blog post: “Future releases will include tools for members of the Brigade community to start their own groups with like-minded friends and neighbors and take action, as well as some experiences around elections that will help citizens vote in line with their values. We’ll also roll out new tools and analytics for our campaign partners so they can turn their supporters’ voices into real influence in the political process.”

    More here: https://joinbrigade.wordpress.com/2015/06/17/democracy-starts-when-you-take-a-stand

    Andrew

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