The Social-Network Effect That Is Helping Legalize Gay Marriage

How peer-to-peer networking tool Amicus helped activists in Minnesota and Washington win same-sex-marriage campaigns


It was no secret during past decades of ballot-box pummeling that social connections help determine where people stand on LGBT rights, say the organizers behind November 6's same-sex marriage wins in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. They knew the public-opinion polls. Simply having a gay family member, friend, or colleague doubles the likelihood of support. 

"The meta narrative," says Michael Cole-Schwartz, director of media efforts for the Human Rights Campaign, "is that we win these fights because Americans know that LGBT people are their neighbors, their cousins, their aunts and uncles, the people they sit next to in church, and the people they shop with at the grocery store." More than that, experience told them that personal conversations on or around the significance of marriage were especially persuasive. And that stayed true when those talks happened between straight people, like the conversations with his daughters Sasha and Malia that were said to change President Obama's thinking.

But there was still a conundrum, and it had to do with amplification, explains Cole-Schwartz: "How do we get these conversations that happen naturally to happen more often?" It's a political challenge not limited to the question of LGBT issues. In their groundbreaking 2004 book Get Out the Vote!, Yale political scientists Alan S. Gerber and Donald P. Green wrote that "the more personal the interaction, the harder it is to reproduce on a large scale."

At the time, though, Facebook had barely emerged from its Harvard dorm. Eight years later,  Human Rights Campaign and local coalitions like Washington United for Marriage and Minnesotans United for All Families say they're beginning to figure out is how to tap the billions of social connections that have emerged there over the last four election cycles. HRC and its allies used a tool called Amicus, a product of the New York tech scene that puts your "social graph" -- a term popularized by Mark Zuckerberg to refer to the available digital knowledge on how all of us are related -- to work in raising political awareness, asking for votes, and raising money (the tool's name, of course, comes from the Latin for "friend"). 

Here's how it works. Pull up, that organization's version of Amicus, and then sign onto Facebook. First, you identify yourself in the voter file from public records. After that, up pops a listing of your Facebook friends, their identities fleshed out with the data Amicus has collected about them: When they were born. Where they were born. Where they live now. Where they went to high school. Where they went to college. On the nuts-and-bolts level, it's just data matching. But the social effect is powerful. The cause now knows not only a ton about a potential new supporter but also how they fit into a current supporter's own little piece of humanity's web.

Activists say they're beginning to figure out is how to tap the billions of social connections that have emerged there over the last four election cycles.

Then the organizers put that power to work. You are asked to reach out and contact those friends and friends-of-friends. The gold standard of outreach is to call them on the phone. (Suggested language: "You got married because you were in love and wanted to start a family? Me too.") But you can opt to email them instead. You can even send them an actual printed postcard, personalized with your photo from Facebook. That combination of public and semi-public data can be startling, but it works, says Seth Bannon, co-founder and CEO of Amicus. People are twice as likely to do something political if, through Amicus, they're asked by a friend to do it, he says.

"You couldn't have done this five years ago," Bannon says. "Bits and pieces of it weren't possible even a few months ago." In large part, that's because Facebook has spent the last few years steadily opening its social graph to outside developers, and the voter data being matched with the graph comes from Catalist, the progressive information outfit that's only a few years old itself. Together the tool equipped marriage-vote organizers to operationalize their accumulated wisdom about human behavior in this election.

One striking revelation from Facebook, say the LGBT-vote organizers, is that Americans are connected far and wide, even when they might not know that they are. Let's say you live in Florida or New Jersey and don't want to see Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, or Washington come down against same-sex marriage. You might have a college dormmate, cousin's best friend, or colleague from three jobs ago now living in Bangor or Glen Echo or Minneapolis or Richland. You might not remember that, but Facebook does. A pair of relevant statistics: The median "friend" count on Facebook is 190, while in "real life" Americans report having an average of two close friends. (There is, for the record, an opportunity to pull folks who aren't on Facebook into the mix using Amicus's find-a-friend feature.) That allows the HRC to target their million-and-a-half-member supporter base to whatever political geography is relevant to the battle of the moment. "It gives us a universe of persuadable people for the cohort already on our side to reach out to" says Cole-Schwartz. 


Amicus debuted at Manhattan's New York Tech Meetup just last October, but its roots run deep. Bannon met co-founder Ben Lamothe in Harvard Square over chess tables year ago, when the former was studying philosophy and government Harvard and the latter theoretical mathematics at MIT. They picked up their third co-founder, Topper Bowers, a software developer who had been toiling at Snapfish, when they relocated to New York. In April, Bannon laid out his own story for me while sitting at General Assembly, the techcentric co-working space in the Flatiron District where Amicus is now based. He was born into politics, the ruddy 28-year-old Connecticut native said. He recalled being four years old, sitting on the shoulders of his socially aware and politically active mother during the contentious 1988 election between Republican Senator Lowell Weicker and upstart Democrat Joe Lieberman, telling to the challenger, "I hope you beat 'Eiker.'"

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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