Why I'm Investing in Unified, a New Social Networking App for Organizers
Most political tech focused on the needs of campaigns and organizations; meanwhile organizers want help building activist communities.
I have a little announcement. After almost twenty years working at the intersection of technology and politics as a writer, organizer and curator, I’ve decided to add one more noun to my bio: investor. I’m putting $5,000 into the crowdfund for Unified, a start-up that is aiming to build “a social network for organizers, activists and the communities they support.” This has been brewing for a few months, but since the SEC just approved Unified’s crowdfunding campaign on Wefunder, it’s time to say more, both in the interest of full disclosure and also because I hope some of you will throw in too.
I’ve seen a lot of ambitious proposals for political technology projects. Back when I was curating Personal Democracy Forum and also advising the Sunlight Foundation, we got pitched on a lot of them. PDF was where Ben Rattray launched Change.org, suffering the crash of his Powerpoint live on stage. (He went on to drive it through multiple pivots until it reached its current successful state.) It’s also where founders of now-forgotten efforts like VoteIQ attempted lift-off. Sunlight made some incredibly good bets, like giving Code for America its very first grant, and it also backed projects like OpenCongress that had real potential but ultimately never figured out how to sustain itself.
Lots of people have also hurled themselves at the challenge of building sustainable platforms for political engagement, raised millions in backing, and even garnered sizable numbers of early adopters, still to fail. The Civic Tech Graveyard, a section of the Civic Tech Field Guide that Matt Stempeck and I built a few years ago and that he still maintains, has dozens of examples of for-profit and nonprofit start-ups that got over the early hurdles and didn’t make it. There are very good reasons why many of these efforts died, including bad timing, bad luck, fickle investors, and feckless founders. A frequent mistake is imagining that there’s a lot of demand for something like a generic social network for voter information (“a place where everyone can debate the issues” or “a place where everyone can find out what their representatives are up to”) when in fact most people haven’t got the time or inclination to care and those that do want to congregate with people they agree with (hence the longevity of political hubs like DailyKos or RedState). You can read more of our “learnings from the civic tech graveyard” here.
So why am I leaping in to support Unified?
First, because I agree with the vision of its CEO and cofounder, Shion Deysarkar. In a video he posted seven months ago unveiling his plans, he describes his own journey into activism after 2016, sharing how hard the work of door-knocking, phone-banking and protesting can actually be. “I did that stuff because I felt I had to, because if I didn’t do it, I was worried democracy was going to die and the world was going to end.” He admits that while that kind of fear can bring people into a movement, it’s a terrible way to keep them involved. “The last four years have burnt out a lot of people,” he notes. After months of research talking to hundreds of activists and veteran organizers, he and his team came to one central conclusion: “It comes down to community. People don’t put their faith in policies or politicians. They put their faith in other people: the people that care about them, that look out for them and that are there when they need them.” So Unified’s north star is figuring out how to help organizers build community around the issues that move people.
As I’ve written here before, finding community is what turns people into long-term activists. To be sure, people who are being harmed directly by some injustice have strong reasons to get involved in trying to fix their situation, either through personal or collective action. But few people stay engaged unless they find friendship and mutual support along the way. So as long as Unified focuses on helping organizers build and sustain real communities, I think it has a real shot at success.
That gets to my second reason for backing Unified: it is centering organizers as its primary customer. Most political technology tools and companies see campaigns and organizations as their primary targets, and the successful ones have thrived by helping those customers do a better job of raising money, targeting voters, testing messages, mass marketing and the like. The people who volunteer to help campaigns or organizations win their battles aren’t central to the technology products those entities use; at best they are seen as useful cogs and gig workers, at worst as marks for apocalyptic fundraising emails (ahem). Even the most successful Democratic tech platforms, like ActBlue or Mobilize, which have respectively amassed millions of names of small donors and volunteers, do little to nothing to cultivate those people as independent actors worth supporting. Again and again, I’ve heard stories from “super-volunteers” who have been organizing for years where they live but who have to prove themselves over and over to national or state organizations or candidates who parachute in seeking to tap their help. The parties and other organizations collect tons of data on voters but they do next to nothing to support these crucial intermediaries who walk the last mile and know how best to reach and motivate their neighbors or coworkers. (Past issues of The Connector on this topic are here and here.)
So I think Unified is aiming at filling a gap in the political tech ecosystem. There are only a few other platforms that aim to serve organizers first: Meetup.com, which thrived for years as a way to help internet users get off the internet to meet regularly (but is now struggling since being bought by WeWork); Coworker.org, which like Change.org offers anyone a tool for creating petitions but which specializes in assisting worker-organizers; and email/fundraising services like NationBuilder and ActionNetwork which require a bit more technical savvy to use. This doesn’t mean that organizers don’t have options: typically they use the available mass consumer platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Slack to connect with the people they are working with. But none of those are really designed for organizing.
There are a few platforms that do try to center community, including MightyNetworks, HiveBrite and Countable. But these are pitched at larger entities as their primary customer, either corporations (brands) or advocacy groups who need to build and manage communities in pursuit of their missions. There are very good business reasons for selling your product to larger entities rather than individuals; they have budgets and ongoing needs that are relatively predictable, and giving them a software-as-a-service solution that they can white-label as their own action hub online makes plenty of sense.
The third reason why I’m intrigued by Unified is the moment just might be right. While it’s true that a lot of digital organizing on the progressive side (as well as the right) is centered on the Facebook ecosystem, there’s a lot of pent-up demand for something else. Of course this isn’t a totally new phenomenon. But in 2017, I was impressed by how easily self-styled “Resistance” organizers at the grassroots level adopted Slack as their tool of choice for coordinating action, and I think that suggests there’s always room for one additional platform alongside Facebook/Instagram/Whatsapp as the thing we use for complicated group processes. To the extent that Unified serves organizers well and makes their lives easier and happier, its odds of success rise, I think.
And that gets to my last argument for betting on Unified. It is very deliberately centering organizers as its first alpha and beta testers. To date, it has engaged several hundred community and political organizers in one-on-one conversations, signing up more than 350 as “super-fans” who have gone through an on-boarding process and involving them in a semi-private community Slack to share ideas and feedback. (You can sign up here if you want to join in.) Its team has been steadily previewing new features as well on YouTube. Soon, in September, these folks and many of the groups they already organize with will be the first testbed for the alpha version of the tool.
Beyond crowdfunding and a more traditional push for seed financing, how does Unified expect to sustain itself? Right now, Deysarkar and crew are focusing on making money from a 3.95% commission on donations through the app. It’s not an unreasonable solution, though I also think if it really manages to super-serve organizers it could charge them a monthly subscriber fee, which is how companies like Meetup, NationBuilder and MightyNetworks all sustain themselves.
All this remains to be seen. But going forward when I write about political tech, I will refer back to this post so there’s full disclosure that I have more than a passing interest in Unified’s prospects. I still want the whole field to do well; we need great tools that can help strengthen civic participation.
—I sometimes titled these items “Privacy, Shmivacy” because so many people seem blasé about losing control of their most personal information, but today’s examples are no joking matter. First, Forbes’ Emily Baker-White and Sarah Emerson are reporting that in Nebraska, a teen is facing criminal charges for aborting her fetus after state authorities obtained her private Facebook messages using a search warrant. She is being tried along with her mother for violating a state law banning abortions after 20 weeks.
The case highlights an ongoing problem for everyone dealing with draconian new anti-abortion laws: how to communicate securely about abortion without fear that a digital service provider is going to turn you in. According to Matt Mitchell, a technologist at the Ford Foundation who is the founder of CryptoHarlem, the best available answer is to use the mobile version of Signal (not the desktop) with the “disappearing messages” mode turned on, so nothing is saved. Signal currently has one big security flaw, which is that it identifies users by their mobile phone numbers, so all the members of a Signal group can be exposed if just one member’s phone is compromised. Signal is working on offering user nicknames as a solution to this problem but that feature hasn’t been released yet. Mitchell also recommends that you regularly delete your data from myactivity.google.com, otherwise there’s a trove that the company keeps on you.
—Amazon’s $1.7 billion purchase of iRobot, the maker of the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, ought to be challenged by the Federal Trade Commission on antitrust and privacy grounds. That’s because the little gremlins use sensors to map the floor plans of the homes they clean, and that trove of data is what makes iRobot so enticing to Amazon. It’s worth remembering that Amazon Ring, the home security camera service, which has prioritized partnering with thousands of police and fire departments, recently admitted to sharing home video footage with law enforcement without a warrant.
Odds and Ends
—Democratic turnout in last week’s primary in Kansas, which featured a push by Republicans to eliminate constitutional protection for abortion rights, was “huge” according to data firm Catalist, at 57% rising closer to what would be seen in a general election than a typical primary. New voter registrations since the Dobbs decision in a number of states have also leaned towards women.
—Haley Bash at the brand-new Donor Organizing Hub has a great suggestion for getting control of (some of) those annoying fundraising emails we’re all deluged with: “Filter all emails with the word “unsubscribe” into one folder. (Imperfect but it can be a start.) Scroll down and click “Unsubscribe” at each unwanted email that enters your inbox. It’s a slow investment but over time, it will declutter your inbox.”
—It’s nice to see Democrats in array for once, even if the Inflation Reduction Act is filled with compromises. That’s my two cents on Medium.