The Social-Network Effect That Is Helping Legalize Gay Marriage

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.

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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.

Ari Wallach, the strategist known as one of the minds behind such work as Samuel L. Jackson's pro-Obama "Wake the F___ Up" video, Sarah Silverman's profane voter ID ads, and 2008's The Great Schlep, helped launch Friendfactor, a celebrity-celebrated political effort to make the most of the social bonds between Americans of all sexual identities.

One lesson he's picked up, Wallach says, is that "20- and 30-year-olds don't want to take political action on behalf of organizations anymore. Their brand allegiance has shifted from vertical, broadcast brands to hyperlocal" -- friends, co-workers, neighbors. Amicus makes peer-to-peer connections possible on that level, and not only is the tool not branded as Amicus when volunteers are using it, it's sometimes not even branded with the name of the organization that's providing supporters with an organizing channel. In Washington, Amicus and other tools were simply packaged as Marriage Hero. "I see in Amicus the future of political parties, more than I see the future of political parties at the DNC or the RNC," Wallach says. Maybe, maybe not, but it's not difficult to imagine that institutions now framed around partisan dichotomies might be reshaped with fuller knowledge of the likes, interests, and friendships of the American electorate.

Our politics, as practiced by real-live humans, is rarely quite as clean as our partisanship suggests. Lowell Weicker ended up ending his career as an independent. For that matter, so did Joe Lieberman. People are complicated. Just ask their friends.

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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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