He Helped Build Facebook Messenger. Now He’s Building an Army of Voters

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.”

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