My political social network startup died last year, and I eulogized it in a public post-mortem here on TechCrunch. The experience (and the article) resulted in my taking over the product reins at nonprofit MyMaryland.net, a new constituent-communication startup.
I’ve been able to further test the principles I wrote about while guiding the development of MyMaryland.net, which is supported by grants and seed funding from The Sunlight Foundation, Points of Light, Village Capital, Google Grants, and Ashoka’s Youth Venture. Since launching about two months ago, the site already has 12 state senators and delegates signed up in Maryland.
Here are some tips for charting your own political social network course.
Don’t Rely On Mass Adoption
One of the greatest traps many well-intentioned teams fall into when building their political social network is to attribute value to their product by how useful it will be once everyone uses it. That notion is particularly tempting in a market without a dominant player; you see the open field and you say to yourself, “No one has won the network-effect war yet; it could be us!” It could be you. But not if your product relies on mass adoption to have significant value.
Building the user base for a political social network is a slog that will test your resolve and budget. Entrepreneurs almost universally suffer from optimism bias and unconsciously plan based on best-case scenarios. Reaching a usage tipping point will be much slower than you think, so don’t rely on it.
To create an (un)social network, focus on how your product will provide value to its first users, not its last. If your product provides a social-optional service that people find valuable, they’ll have a reason to use it before network effect kicks in. Votizen did this well initially by printing and delivering messages to Congress. Though largely symbolic compared with an email, this appealed to some initial users as a standalone service. Pinterest launched with a strong, standalone product. People enjoy making collections of things they like — clothes, gadgets, cuisine — even if they don’t have an audience.
Launch Small And Count Wins
Of course for many startups, the user count is the most relevant measure of progress. This is not the case for political social networks. Worse, planning on mass usage could sink you. Political social networks are about political power, generally acting as a vehicle for others to exercise their power in a way previously unavailable. Your social network will succeed based on how many political wins it has, how many times it tips the scales. And wins will be easier when you have a critical mass of users.
Fifty users won’t sway a state, but they’ll win a neighborhood.
Since the tipping point of a critical mass is determined by a ratio of users to non-users, you’ll reach that tipping point fastest in small districts. Fifty users won’t sway a state, but they’ll win a neighborhood. When you can win a healthy number of neighborhoods, you’ll win the city. Win a few cities and you’ll win the state. Win a few states and the country is your oyster.
Raise Minority Opinions
Another trope in political social networking is that more participation and deliberation will lead to general-consensus solutions. In reality, most of our political disagreements are based on values that evolve very slowly, if at all. These disagreements are not generally resolved by exchanging well-structured arguments.
If you ignore the chimera of consensus you can instead focus on a more natural and beneficial diversity of opinion. Minority-supported solutions can be highly effective and may elicit passionate support from portions of the population; ideological preferences don’t always correlate with effectiveness. This can be tricky to implement and is very product specific, but empowering minority opinions can also help move outlier political solutions into the scope of acceptability to attack problems from a new angle.
No North In The Industry
Some social network verticals have a clear dominant company, such as Facebook for personal social networks and LinkedIn for professional social networks. For those that don’t, product and UX designers — who base some amount of their work on the existing feature vocabulary of users — are often tempted to pioneer new user behaviors.
Pioneering user behavior may sound great, but from a UX perspective it should be avoided.
Aol in the ’90s pioneered many of the UX behaviors that would grow to become personal social networks. Without those market-shaping features, Friendster would have had a much greater struggle.
When you’re forced to cut a new path, dig deep and search wide to find social, cultural and emotional analogues to help inform the design of your new behavior, then introduce and educate the user slowly. Pioneering user behavior may sound great, but from a UX perspective it should be avoided. Good UX builds off of existing analogous behavior to make the most intuitive UI possible.
Every Message Must Be A Success
Every social network is ultimately about conveying some form of message. That’s doubly true of political social networks where the purpose is to increase the political influence of each user. People need to feel like their voice matters, like their messages they’re sharing have some effect. Granting a feeling of success is one of the biggest challenges of political social networking, as well as politics generally. The most successful political campaigns structure volunteer activities to be as much about the volunteer as their work. The most successful political social networks give users positive reinforcement when they write a post, leave a comment or record a video.
In many political social networks, developers envision their users getting some sort of validation from an authority figure or mass of users. But your odds will be better if your political social media project creates a sense of validation without aid from other users. Gamification — a set of features that rewards user actions with status symbols, unlocked features or game points — is a popular technique that helps to provide a sense of validation. When it’s intelligently implemented it can be effective. For example, a political social network could encourage users to discuss an issue by giving its most persuasive user a “Debate Champ” tag on the post, or the user with the most followers in their neighborhood a “Block Captain” title.
In the early days of Foursquare, there were many users who were Mayors before their friends were even using the service. Apart from the game aspect, Foursquare Mayorships tapped into another form of validation: personal identity. Most decisions we make — what to buy, where to eat — reinforce our identities.
Be An Insurgent
An incremental improvement isn’t always enough: we didn’t develop a means to fly by making better and better cars, and a successful political social network won’t be an incremental improvement of a current political system. It will be a new additional system with new behaviors and capabilities outside of simply modernizing an existing process.
If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em. And if you can’t beat ’em, go around ’em.
Introducing a new system into politics will naturally challenge the stability of the political ecosystem and threaten the apex predator in that system: the elected official. Evolution is painful, and it’s difficult for elected officials to evolve, so don’t expect them to adopt your network even though they might publicly support your efforts.
Being an insurgent means not just that politicians don’t need to use your product, it means being successful even when they oppose it. Change.org has been successful by focusing on rallying popular support and press attention to pressure decision-makers. If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em. And if you can’t beat ’em, go around ’em.
Have An Ethos, Be A Reformer
A polity’s political environment is directly shaped by its governmental, electoral and legal systems. These are, sadly, so intractable that we tend to forget how directly they influence our political activity. A successful political social network will change the operation of one or more of those systems, so you’d better have a clear idea what the effect will be and why you want to change it.
Our endeavors are daunting but essential. Jefferson wrote: “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” The timing is right. The broad influence and accessibility of the web, the rise of the social network, and current research in behavioral psychology and sociology are all in place. Those of us at the center of this confluence are uniquely positioned to design new types of interactions that will renew our communities. And maybe even create a new world.