It’s no secret that citizens of the United States are disengaged from their democracy – the 2014 midterm elections saw the lowest voter turnout in 72 years, satisfaction with Congress is around a record low and public trust in the government has been decreasing for years.
A new app called Brigade, however, is aiming to change that. The app – backed by Marc Benioff and Ron Conway, and chaired by Sean Parker – was founded by Matt Mahan (who worked with Parker on Causes) and James Windon after discussing political issues with their friends and families, and realizing that connecting with people in such a manner can actually be fun.
Mahan and Windon took it a step further, too, by making Brigade feel like a game. It’s simple to start using the app: just download it to your phone, sign up using your email or Facebook, and start scrolling through statements on a wide variety of issues, with which you can choose to agree or disagree. The issues are broad – such as the minimum wage, guns and politics – but the statements are simple – such as “States should regulate the minimum wage, not the federal government.” There are also daily issues related to the news posted, such as Donald Trump opting out of a Republican debate, on which users can also vote.
As users progress through the issues – voicing opinion a certain number of times or making their own statements and signing petitions – they earn badges, and can start comparing opinions with friends and well-known figures, such as Sean Parker himself (he and I don’t agree on much, incidentally).
The app publicly launched (with a private Beta to start) just last summer, so none of my friends are on it yet despite my pleas, but I’m excited to start comparing opinions when they finally are.
Users are also encouraged to write why they agree or disagree with a statement, and are able to write their own statements for other users to agree or disagree with, meaning that everything about the app is in the hands of the users. This also means that statements are sometimes phrased awkwardly or simplistically, but it’s an easy thing to move past. And at the end of the day, that’s reality.
However, facilitating a digital debate isn’t all that Brigade has done to try to boost civic engagement. In November, it provided interactive voter guides in San Francisco and Manchester, N.H., to help voters pinpoint which candidates align best with their views. And while Brigade won’t say how many people used the guides, they confirmed that some voters did in fact use them.
To a generation of people seemingly disassociated from anything but their phones, this could be a major breakthrough, especially with the 2016 presidential election looming. The first step to getting people to vote is getting them engaged in the issues and helping them realize that their voices matter.
Founder Matt Mahan wrote in an op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle that voters,especially millennials, have opinions on issues, but don’t feel like their vote counts, or that their voices will be heard. Mahan hopes to combat this by making democracy “approachable and enjoyable.”
I hope the bridge is real. It’s one thing to sit on your phone and swipe through opinions, agreeing and disagreeing like you were perusing movie reviews on Flixter. It’s quite another, however, to translate that into punching a ballot. I already care and even after I was done using Brigade, I exited the app and went on Twitter, almost totally forgetting that I had just spent 20 minutes expressing my views.
Sure, I was invested and thinking while Brigade was in front of me, but it didn’t feel like the thing that was going to propel me into the booths on Election Day. I think if you’re invested enough in an issue, you’ll go out to vote. But almost 80 percent of the country doesn’t trust the government, and if you don’t think the government works, or is working against you in general, you aren’t going to vote. Can an app change that?
I hope so. If there is one that will, it looks like it could be Brigade. To date, the app has raised $9 million and (at the time of this publication) they are looking to add six new positions to their team of just over 40.
Patrick Hoff is a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has spent the last three years writing and editing at his college newspaper, The Massachusetts Daily Collegian. He has written for a number of publications, including Jyrno and The Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts, as well as writing for the blog at the Institute for Community Inclusion.
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