Essembly.com: Finally, a Friendster for Politics

Essembly.com: Finally, a Friendster for Politics

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, March 13 2006

Online social networks have taken off all over the United States, and indeed much of the wired world. Friendster, the granddaddy of the breed, says it has more than 24 million members, while its newer rival MySpace.com claims more than 50 million accounts. Eighty-five percent of the college students in America use Facebook.com. Tagged.com, which focuses on teens, has 2 million users. Bebo.com has tallied more than 21 million registered users worldwide in its first year, 4 million alone in England. In India, the web portal Rediff.com has more than 2 million users of its social network service. And in South Korea, a whopping 15 million people—one-third of the country’s population—belong to Cyworld (which literally means "relationship world").

While all these platforms differ in some significant ways, it’s fair to say that they’re all mostly about socializing. Participants join for free, create their own personal profile page with photographs and other bits of playful identifying information, and use a wide variety of tools to reach out and connect with each other.

To date, no one has figured out how to build an online social network around politics. But Joe Green, the CEO of Essembly.com, believes he and his team have found a way. In the summer of 2003, Green, a social studies major at Harvard, was doing an internship on the Kerry presidential campaign, when he had an epiphany. As he told me in a recent interview, “I saw Friendster, and it clicked immediately that this social networking thing should be done for politics.” He added, “Whether you’re raising money or doing petitions, the basis is social networking.”

Green, who roomed at Harvard with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.com, and helped a bit with that site's launch in 2004, was hardly the first person who wanted to create a Friendster for politics. During the presidential primaries, technologist-organizers involved in the Dean, Clark and Kucinich campaigns worked hard to build vibrant online communities by enabling their supporters to connect to each other around common interests, geography and social ties.

Their efforts live on at DFAlink, a continuation of DeanSpace that was built for DemocracyforAmerica, and at ProgressNowAction, a Colorado-based progressive organizing effort that was launched in 2005. (Not coincidentally, both sites were built by ex-Dean campaign programmers at the tech firm Blue State Digital.)

At both sites, a member can create their own profile and blog, initiate events, start groups or fundraisers, or join efforts launched by others. The sites aggregate that information on their home pages, with the result that a new visitor immediately encounters a beehive of interesting activities. More importantly, because site members can invite friends to join and then make them part of their immediate social circle, these sites are designed to channel normal word-of-mouth connections into political action. Other organizations experimenting with a similar set of tools include the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, the New Progressive Coalition, and John Edwards’ One America Committee.

DFAlink and ProgressNowAction are both growing; the former has more than 15,000 members and about 700 active groups, the latter has tripled in size in the six months since its launch, to 18,000. The engine for this growth? At both sites members are already bound by a common vision, and also because each organization invests real resources in behind-the-scenes human organizing. For example, ProgressNowAction has a staff of six, including two organizers who spend a lot of time working with local progressive groups and teaching them how to use the site.

The Users are Their Own Engine
Green and his fellow programmers have a different vision, of a more neutral gathering place that would entice a variety of politically-minded people to engage with each other, instead of a portal that would only connect supporters of one candidate or cause. Essembly, they say on its home page, is “a free, non-partisan social networking site that provides tools for politically interested individuals to connect with one another, engage in constructive discussion, and organize to take action.”

Like other online social networks, Essembly encourages members to create their own profile page, to build up a visible array of friends on their page, and to find people through common social connections or geography. But where the site departs from the standard text is in how it centers membership on user-generated political conversation rather than a more typical engine like a particular candidate or cause.

The site does that by inviting all members to post “resolves”—short statements of opinion—and to vote and comment on those of other site members. When you log in, the first thing you see is the “Resolve of the day,” which is one of the three most popular resolves from the previous day. New members are also asked to give their opinions on an initial set of resolves. From all that information, Essembly develops an ideological profile of each member that is completely relational—that is, based on how your composite set of answers matches someone else’s—and far more nuanced than simple self-descriptions like “liberal” or “conservative.”

When you log in, you also see the resolves by people in your social network, which can include “friends,” “allies” and “nemeses,” and resolves generated by groups you may belong to. This gives a boost to any resolve you may post—if the members of your immediate social network vote on it too, that information spreads virally to the people in their network, and so on.

For example, when I visited the site on March 3rd, I saw that Matt McMillan, an organizer with Campaign for America’s Future (CAF)who is in my friends network, had voted against this resolve, “George W. Bush is one of the greatest Presidents America has ever had.” Nearly 150 people had voted as well, and many added comments that led to threaded discussions on the topic. The conversation was, in general, civil and peppy.

Freedom of Essembly
If you’re a person who enjoys a good political conversation and likes to network, it’s easy to see how Essembly could quickly become addictive. Mark Pincus, founder of Tribe.net, calls it “the coolest political web site I’ve seen (because it’s about interacting over informing).” According to founder Joe Green, about ¼ of the site’s 4000 registered users visit the site every day, and they are averaging about 40,000 page views a day. Essembly is still in beta, but Green and his team have been shrewdly seeding its growth by inviting a wide range of existing political groups ranging from the National Taxpayers Union to Campaign for America’s Future to invite their members to join. I emailed a couple of Essembly members who had posted resolves that had gotten hundreds of votes to find out what they liked about the site. Here’s a sampling of what they said:

Paul Pak wrote:

Recently, I joined Essembly because my friend invited me to join. I enjoy creating a resolve and see how other members react to it. It's great to read other members' stance on issues and see the other side of them, especially on issues that aren't one sided or that are black and white….What's amazing is that members respect other members' opinions. I have yet to come across a post in which one member attacks another member personally just because their political views may differ. There will be issues in which people from the same political party will disagree and essembly.com portrays that better than myspace and facebook. On facebook, there's an option in which a member can declare his or her political orientation. The choices are limited to liberal, conservative, libertarian and other. It's hard to see how liberal or conservative a person is based on his or her facebook profile.

Jason Antebi wrote:

I've grown addicted to Essembly, and I think anyone with the slightest interest in politics will gain a lot from using Essembly. … I've never heard of some groups that are now participating on Essembly, and just from debating with some members of these groups, I've become interested in joining quite a few of them. My social network has grown tremendously. I'm making friends with a lot of people with similar views -- and even with people who I'm polar opposites with. The beauty of Essembly is that you can get to know a lot of people from different backgrounds. The membership is quite diverse. I use Myspace frequently, but Essembly is definitely the more intelligent and interactive version of Myspace. You can't debate issues, easily chat with members, or actually get to know people the way you can on Essembly. There is no comparison: Essembly is the best online community for the politically active, or just anyone who is interested in learning more about virtually any issue.

Daniel Mark wrote:

…The part about getting organized and taking action, which Essembly stresses, is not so easy until you actually get enough people on the site to form coalitions. In will be interesting and fun to see how political coalitions grow on the site as it gets older and more people get on. As far as coalition building goes, I suppose the site has two unique qualities that have been utilized so far. One is the recommend feature where you can recommend either resolves or groups to your friends, thus bringing awareness to people about things you are concerned with. The other is that on top of requesting people as friends you can also be their "ally," which allows you to make contact with people without necessarily becoming too personal. Hence you could browse the groups they are in and see if you want to be involved with them. I have already been requested and sent out requests for allies a number of times. (There is also a "nemesis" connection, but we'll see how often people actually want to create nemeses.)

And Matthew McMillan of CAF said:

…From recruiting new members to engaging with current supporters (currently, a very difficult proposition for DC advocacy orgs) to identifying new leaders to building coalitions to moving ideas and actions, if Essembly succeeds, it will be an invaluable organizing platform for advocacy organizations….While I think the numbers are there, I’m undecided as to whether or not the people that join will become actively engaged. My apprehension comes mainly from the small tests we’ve done with our list. While some people have joined, I’ve yet to see many of them fully engaged in the site. We’ll see if the pattern continues to hold….As the head of a local DFA outfit back in 2003, I used the old DeanLINK to build up my MeetUps and events. So, I can definitely see local and informal political groups thriving on the site. For larger organizations like CAF, I think the site can have a big impact for us. For example, we’ll eventually be able to attach our actions to resolves which will allow us, through the social network, to accomplish two key organizational goals – think and act. Our supporters, and potential supporters, will think through voting on the resolve and engaging in the discussions. And, then they will act through an attached action.

Scratching the Right Itch
Is Essembly about to take the political world by storm? I certainly think they have a shot, though they still have a long road ahead. With one angel investor (who is a Republican, Green says), a top Facebook programmer, and a team of hungry college-age geeks, Green and crew have built a pretty robust site. Eventually they will add advertising matched by topic and ideological proximity. They’ve also made a lot of smart decisions about how to tune it: requiring people to use their real names and not misrepresent who they are, pulling the most popular resolves up to prominence so the far-flung conversations on the site have a semblance of focus, and avoiding adding so many functionalities to the site (a la Myspace) that a new user might feel lost.

Most important, they have figured out how to scratch their users’ itch to discuss what’s going on in the world and see where they fit in that conversation. With some luck, Essembly could be the first mass political networking site on the web that is owned by no single issue group or candidate and open to all. If I were a candidate or issue organization, I’d be looking to jump in with both feet.

To join Essembly as a member of the Personal Democracy Forum group on the site, go to http://www.essembly.com/register/?code=personaldemocracy. No additional invitation is required. See you there!

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