Peter Martinazzi joined Facebook in May 2009, when the company was just five years old but well on its path to world domination. Over the next eight years, he rose to become a director of project management, helping to oversee improvements to Facebook Messenger. Martinazzi loved working at Facebook and speaks earnestly about having designed tools to help people be more connected. (Actually, he speaks earnestly about everything.) But by early 2017, like many young liberals in the aftermath of the 2016 election, he was ready for a change. Martinazzi left his job and embarked on a period of travel and aimless self-exploration.
He started listening to a lot of nonfiction audiobooks about inequality, devouring a veritable syllabus of influential progressive texts: The New Jim Crow, Evicted, Give Us the Ballot, Saving Capitalism, and so on. He became fixated on how unfair modern American life was—how few people had access to the kind of privilege, for example, that allowed someone like him to take time off from work without having to worry about money.
“I listened to these books, and I was trying to figure out how I could best impact either structural racism, or economic inequality, or democracy not being very democratic,” he told me a few weeks ago, speaking via Zoom from his Brooklyn apartment, his laptop perched on top of a dresser. Behind him, a stack of boxes served as a makeshift desk. Eventually, he explained, he landed on political campaigns and organizing technology, where “the demands and goals are similar to Messenger: How do I bring my friends onto this?” Last fall he joined Mobilize America, the leading events platform for Democratic and progressive campaigns. Now instead of trying to maximize how much time users spend on Facebook, his job is to make it easier for volunteers to help Democrats win elections on the digital side—which, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, is going to be the only side that matters for a while.
Like many Democratic campaign tech companies, Mobilize didn’t even exist in November 2016. Launched in early 2017 with seed money from the progressive incubator Higher Ground Labs, Mobilize was designed to turn the wave of enthusiasm behind mass events like the Women’s March into something that would pay results on Election Day.
“One thing that was apparent from the beginning was that energy could manifest quickly on platforms like Facebook, but was very hard to maintain; it was hard to move people from the online space into the offline space,” says Alfred Johnson, Mobilize’s cofounder and CEO. “Platforms like Facebook are built to get you to engage on Facebook; they're not built to get you into the offline world, doing things for a particular organization.”
That’s the problem Mobilize is meant to help solve. It’s an event platform designed to help campaigns reach supporters and help volunteers find ways to take action. For candidates and advocacy groups, it automates many of the key steps in organizing —tracking signups, sending reminder emails, getting feedback from volunteers—and integrates with other tech tools, like texting apps and voter file databases, that campaigns rely on. For volunteers, it streamlines the process of finding and registering for the right events: canvassing, debate watch parties, phone and text banking, and the like. In just over two years, Mobilize has become nearly ubiquitous among Democratic campaigns and left-leaning advocacy organizations. Almost all the Democratic presidential primary campaigns used it, as do independent groups like Swing Left, Crooked Media, and the National Education Association. A centralized events platform might seem obvious, but no one was doing it until now. “It is wild to us that nothing like Mobilize existed prior to Mobilize existing,” says Mallory Long, the director of training at the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a liberal anti-gerrymandering nonprofit.
There is no equivalent on the right; Republican campaigns, including Donald Trump’s, use off-the-shelf platforms like Eventbrite for their events. According to Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, that tech gap reflects the more top-down nature of Republican campaigns. “Your traditional Democratic voters are people who go to protests and volunteer, whereas your Republican voters are more likely to look for the organization and leadership of a candidate or campaign,” he says. “There aren't as many nonprofits driving organizing and things like that on the right.”
When it comes to political technology, a lot of attention since 2016 has been paid to the Trump campaign’s masterful use of Facebook to identify, target, and raise money from supporters—creating a social media gap that his opponent, Joe Biden, looks nowhere close to closing. Biden has just under 7 million followers across Facebook and Twitter, compared with 105 million for Trump. And The New York Times reported this week that Biden and his party trail Trump and the Republican National Committee by $187 million.
If Democrats are going to gain a digital edge in 2020, it’s more likely to come on the comparatively unsexy side of organizing tools, like Mobilize, that seek to exploit the party’s one key structural advantage: a larger base of potential voters. The significance of a “ground game” is easy to overstate at the presidential level—Biden cruised to the nomination despite having only a sliver of Bernie Sanders’s operation—but it matters more in down-ballot races. Plus, if the upcoming presidential election is as close as the last one, every tiny margin will count. That’s especially true if the coronavirus leads to a dramatic rise in voting by mail, as seems likely. If millions of Americans are suddenly applying for absentee ballots for the first time, it could be important to have an efficient way to steer organizational and volunteer energy toward making sure those voters receive and mail back their ballots.
“If we can channel these very large audiences of people, which are predominately all online, efficiently into the kinds of actions that win elections, then Democratic candidates and campaigns will win,” Johnson says.
That’s where Martinazzi comes in. His current job is not too different from what he did at Facebook: observe how people are using the platform, then make it even easier to keep repeating that behavior. At Messenger, that could mean noticing that users were sending more and more photos, and in response adding a camera button directly into the app. At Mobilize, it means smoothing out as much friction as possible. Martinazzi noticed, for example, that while campaign organizers tend to visit the platform on their computers, most volunteers visit on mobile. So he and his team tweaked the signup and share buttons to make sure they’re always on the screen on mobile, to which they attribute a 0.5 percent increase in event registrations.
Similarly, they saw that a big proportion of registrations came from volunteers sharing links with their friends. By adding a native share function to the mobile app, they increased registrations by 1 percent. And they added an invitation link to the automated confirmation SMS sent by the platform. That link, Martinazzi says, resulted in 3 percent more registrations. “All three of these ideas came through us seeing two-thirds of volunteers visited on their phones, and we hadn’t designed the site for mobile,” he adds.
According to Mobilize, activity on the platform, though down from its pre-Super Tuesday peak, remains high, even during the pandemic. This past Monday, the platform saw just over 24,000 signups, nearly double the number a few days before the Iowa caucuses, when there were eight presidential campaigns actively organizing. “People want to volunteer, they want to help out—even more so, now, a lot of people at home are like, ‘There’s stuff going on the world, I want to help out with it,’” Martinazzi says. “But it’s really hard to know what the best way to help out is.”
That's especially valid when many would-be volunteers are still sheltering in place. The move to all-virtual organizing in the age of coronavirus only heightens the need for effective organizing technology. Before the pandemic, about 25 percent of activity on Mobilize was virtual. Over the course of a few weeks in March, that shifted to 100 percent. That has created new layers of friction.
“Logistics are actually more confusing than before,” Martinazzi says. It’s easier to give directions to an address than to a Zoom meeting. To help volunteers navigate the all-digital environment, Mobilize has made subtle changes, like making meeting URLs more prominent, or changing reminder email subject lines to “instructions for your event today” to assure volunteers that the email will explain how to log in. Another change was to allow virtual events be tagged in a specific location. It turns out, Martinazzi reports, that organizers and volunteers like to tailor events to people in their local communities, even if technically they could be signing in from anywhere in the world. “Volunteering is still very social,” he says.
The most common events are easy to shift to remote settings: phone and text banking. But with in-person rallies and canvases on hold indefinitely, campaigns and organizations are experimenting with more creative ways to build virtual engagement. For example, When We All Vote, the voting organization cochaired by Michelle Obama, has livened up text banking by turning it into virtual “couch parties” featuring celebrity appearances and live sets by DJ D-Nice. The group reports that 407,824 eligible voters were texted during the first couch party on March 25.
Mobilize wants to enable inventive approaches. It used to only allow certain events to be labeled as virtual; now anything can be. It’s just one more bit of friction removed from the platform.
“We don't know how a virtual carpool will work, or what that could mean, but I wouldn’t put it past some organization to think of something where that makes sense,” Martinazzi says. “So there's no reason for us not to allow the concept of a virtual carpool in there, and if no one uses it, fine—but if someone does use it, we got out of their way.”