The Social-Network Effect That Is Helping Legalize Gay Marriage

Funders, too, see a lot to like in Amicus. A week after the election, the company announced it had completed a round of funding worth $3.2 million. Amicus, says Bannon, is looking to increase its staff of seven, adding a data scientist as soon as possible. It would be ideal to have someone schooled in sociology, too, who might help them figure out not only who should be asked to engage in political action, but the best person in their social graph to prod them to make that leap. (Amicus is non-partisan and the platform generally open, "but if you're trying to take away rights," says Bannon, "we won't work with you.") The company is also considering taking more seriously something in which they've only been dabbling: anonymous modeling. "If you call a 32-year-old woman at 3 p.m. on a Thursday and ask her for $30 and she says 'no,'" says Bannon, "we capture that." It's valuable data that gets poured into a growing cache that could someday allow them to know that a woman of that age and job status should be called after working hours and asked for 20 bucks instead.

Also important: the psychology of volunteers themselves. The vision driving Amicus is one of creating a more robust version of the campaign experience -- more immediate, more knowing. But some things are lost in the digital conversion, like the the camaraderie that nudges volunteers towards picking up the phone at an in-person phone bank. To help solve that, volunteers who rack up participation points and thus moved up levels were rewarded with both virtual goods, like Facebook badges, and real goods, like stickers, T-shirts, and drawstring bags. 

The gamification proved serious business. "People were willing to write an angry email when they didn't get their points," says Bannon, "which is a pretty good sign it works." They have been talking to Gerber, the political scientist, about adding in subtle encouragements like, perhaps, bumping an old buddy to the top of a volunteers call list after a few discouraging interactions with voters closer to the edges of their networks. And there are also more obvious affirmations on deck. As part of a planned redesign, says Bannon, "it's going to tell you when someone has just been hung up on five times in a row and needs a high five." (A virtual one, of course.)

"People were willing to write an angry email when they didn't get their points," says Bannon, "which is a pretty good sign it works."

Amicus fits comfortably into a bigger, counterintuitive trend in digital politics. In a recent post-campaign debrief, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina argued that "what campaigns are evolving into, actually, in many ways is a return to the past." Much of the advanced tech the campaign deployed, said Messina, succeeded in making the experience of door-to-door campaigning less tedious and more efficient. The ambition of a surprising amount of political technologies is to move away from the cacophony of political TV ads and tweets and Facebook wall posts -- and back to actual conversations between actual humans. Amicus connects users via social media but discourages its use in practice; political tweets and posts, says Bannon, come across as too "spammy."

Of course, this is a new kind of conversation where you have far more knowledge about your neighbor at your fingertips than you did before. Is that creepy? Is it too creepy? Logging onto Amicus and seeing even just your own name in the voter file can be unsettling. Public information is one thing, but this is public public, combined with all that social-media data that wasn't meant to mean anything. Bannon admits there is often a "whoa" moment. You pick up the phone, dial the number on the voter file, and say, "Hey, you went to college with my step-brother, and we hung out that one time at the Brickskeller your junior year. How do you feel about marriage equality?" In some ways, Amicus engineers around it, pretending to know less than it does by, for example, hiding street numbers. But organizers say they're riding a technological wave where people seem to get over their squeamishness if they judge that they're trading privacy for the chance to make a stronger social connection.

Right now, Amicus is calibrated to make the most of even the squeamish. There are low-bar asks that still manage to be powerful. The first thing Amicus users are asked to do is act as a data refiner, matching their Facebook list to their friend's correct entry in the voter file. (People's names aren't unique, of course, and it's not always clear which address is a current one.) Bannon says that 21,000 matches were made through the HRC, and about as many in Minnesota. "If someone matches friends and leaves because they're shy, they're still creating a lot of value," says Bannon. "They're enabling another volunteer to make that friend-of-a-friend call." What's more, Minnesota volunteers were also asked to tag their friends as supporters or opponents of same-sex marriage. As for who owns the resulting data, the information on whose Facebook profile matches which entry in the voter file stays with Amicus. The cause -- say, Minnesota United -- gets to keep that insight on whether or not someone is a same-sex marriage supporter. 

It's a kind of in-kind contribution of your social graph, and a valuable one. "Once we let people know that it saves us time and money to let us know that your friends are voting 'no,' it's pretty convincing," says Nicholas Kor, who worked on Minnesota United's "Let Your Friends kNOw" program. In Minnesota, they assign numbers to it. A few clicks to let them know where a friend stands, the Minnesota coalition told volunteers, saved the marriage push half an hour's worth of work and about $30.

****

Amicus is still a fledgling technology, but the ideas on peer-to-peer organizing it's tapping into run through the age of data-infused politics. In Facebook's own early days, users were given the choice of tagging themselves with a discrete number of political identifiers ranging from very liberal to very conservative, with apathetic also included in the mix. The caused a stir when, in 2008, they switched instead to a scrolling mix of international political parties. Today, the "political affiliation" option is a jumble of adjectives and established organizations, as well as a text box for people to fill in however they wish. The acknowledgement: when you move beyond simply Republican and Democrat in America, things get messy. The Obama campaign realized that many of the voters they'd identified as possibly swinging their way watch Fox News, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said at a recent panel. On the same-sex-marriage question, state-level organizers say, you can study the data enough to know that Democrats tend to be more supportive of same-sex marriage than Republicans, women more than men, urban voters more than rural ones. But those models are rough and incomplete.

"It's not a clean partisan break," says Zach Silk, the 30-something campaign manager for Washington's same-sex-marriage campaign. The final vote breakdowns aren't in, and the state's voter records are non-partisan, but Silk explains, "we found that there were a pretty remarkable number of conservative voters that ended up supporting us." Social data, he says, helped narrow down a universe of some 3.6 million voters to figure out which of them were the few, important persuadable ones. It was a tactic borne of necessity. "We know that as much as 20 percent of Democrats weren't going to be with us," says Silk. "To get a winning majority, we needed to bring in as many libertarian-oriented Republicans as possible." It was a pattern repeated across the four battleground states.

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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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