Imagine you’ve been tirelessly and passionately working for a cause for years. You’ve relied on hard work to win small, incremental victories in your nascent field. Years later, your field is suddenly “discovered” by national press when a guy with lots of money and a radar for an opportune investment starts a for-profit company that has the same name as a volunteer wing of your organization. This guy is a hero, they say. This is the guy who will revolutionize the American political system, one dollar at a time.
That’s probably how the dedicated civic technologists at Code for America felt about the announcement of Sean Parker’s Brigade, a largely unknown but well-financed civic tech startup announced about six months ago. Brigade aims to solve many lofty goals, and its hefty $9 million in funding set itself apart from the legion of many failed civic tech startups before it.
If you aren’t familiar with the field, the civic tech space lies at the confusing intersection of the political and tech worlds. Government and politics, by and large, have not advanced as rapidly towards innovation as other sectors have. That’s how groups like Code for America and the Sunlight Foundation sprang up. Both organizations do incredible things by harnessing the power of big data for the improvement of cities and government. Code for America is the largest player in the political tech field in the United States. CfA’s marquee program is its fellows program, which places talented technologists, designers, and coders in partner cities across the U.S. with the expressed goal of solving a problem for the city. Code for America’s grassroots wing is its Brigade program. The Brigade is, as the word implies, a volunteer-run group of civic technologists. Brigades receive support and guidance from Code for America to work with their local governments to implement open government policies and harness the power of data and design to create a better interaction between citizens and government. Full disclosure: I was a Brigade Captain with Code for Maine for a year. Code for America is where it’s at. Its model is something I believe in, and it’s an organization that has the potential to grow and succeed in any number of ways.
It’s yet to be determined if Sean Parker’s Brigade was purposely named after this existing civic tech group. There’s no reason to think that his group wouldn’t have at least known about Code for America’s Brigade. And for that it seems likely that Parker and friends were either a) lazy or b) opportunistic. The fact that Parker and his cronies named his organization “Brigade” is the least infuriating detail about his group, though.
Silicon Valley is looking at Parker’s Brigade as an opportunity, “something to keep an eye on.” Brigade has already been called “disruptive”. What’s disruptive about it? From what little information we’ve gathered about Brigade since its inception six months ago, it appears that Brigade will be a stand-alone social network aimed at boosting civic engagement.
I’m pretty sure I could be disruptive in just about any under-invested market with $9 million dollars. Brigade is being called disruptive because it has millions of dollars, not because it has actually caused any disruption. The real disruption it’s caused is in pissing off everyone else who works in the civic tech field.
Then there’s perhaps the reason Brigade has been criticized the most: its lack of diversity.
While Brigade may have a “diverse set of skills,” its diversity in general is laughable. I’m counting eight women in this picture out of 45 Team members. Eight women out of 51 employees, counting the leadership team. And zero women on their board.
What could possibly go wrong with this lack of diversity? Just ask another company whose misfortunes seem to be inextricably tied to its homogenous culture: Uber. Conveniently enough, Brigade just hired Uber’s former PR director to serve on its communications team. Something tells me he’ll be well prepared to defend Brigade from whatever inevitable misogynist slip-ups occur.
Let’s get back to Parker, though. One of the main reasons I doubt his legitimacy to lead a civic tech organization is this: he hasn’t shown that he cares about community or shared progress. Remember how Sean Parker was the guy who got married in a lavish middle-earth-inspired wedding ceremony right in the middle of a protected redwood forest in Big Sur? This is the guy who damaged protected redwood forests so that he and his wife could have a dream wedding. I’m not sure I could think of a more selfish deed that illustrates why Sean Parker probably doesn’t care all that much about your local community.
I’m sure that many of the staff members at Brigade are good and smart people. I’m positive that the mission of improving civic engagement is a worthy goal. But I’m going to be pissed if Sean Parker is the guy who gets the credit for saving our political system.