There is a special corner of the Internet graveyard dedicated to sites that have promised - and failed - to improve civic engagement.
Most have tanked because they were too wonky, too earnest, too focused on raising money for a specific candidate or issue.
Matt Mahan knows this bleak history. It comes in handy as the San Francisco entrepreneur leads Brigade, the high-profile, highly funded civic engagement platform.
Sean Parker -- the billionaire early Facebook investor -- has contributed the bulk of Brigade's $9.3 million in early funding, with venture capitalist Ron Conway and Saleforce.com founder Marc Benioff chipping in undisclosed amounts. That's about three times as much as other well-funded civic sites usually corral at this stage. The cash infusion has allowed Brigade to hire top Silicon Valley talent.
"We love to joke that the way to build the platform to revolutionize politics is to not make it about politics," said Mahan, 31, as the CEO sat in the second-floor headquarters of Brigade's South of Market office.
But there is a major challenge in trying to use technology to encourage people to get involved. A smartphone, it turns out, is a better platform for summoning a taxi than participating in a civil discussion about gun rights.
"The limits of technology in politics is politics," said Brigade President James Windon. "There are exigencies and idiosyncrasies that go into the political process that are irrational. Technology usually doesn't have to deal with those exigencies and idiosyncrasies."
Brigade has been quiet about its plans for months, but company leaders are poking their heads out of the startup cave with appearances at major online political gatherings, including the annual liberal Netroots Nation in Detroit and the conservative-libertarian Reboot conference held Saturday in San Francisco.
While Brigade isn't due to roll out until 2015, political insiders are already hoping it will be something of a magic potion, as voter apathy is reaching record levels. Only 25 percent of registered California voters bothered to cast ballots in the June 3 primary election -- the lowest turnout for a statewide election ever. Thirty percent of voters hadn't watched live TV in the week before the election, rendering them immune to the endless stream of campaign season commercials.
"There is a lot of cynicism among campaign consultants -- particularly about the youth vote. It's a question of how do youth voters become more engaged and what can be used to reach them," said Shane D'Aprile, publisher of Campaigns and Elections, sponsor of the CampaignTech West conference on Tuesday in San Francisco, where Mahan will deliver a keynote speech. "I don't know how Brigade solves that, but our audience is anxious to hear their ideas."
Brigade's goal is to create a nonpartisan place that people would visit every day - not just during the two weeks before election day. It would be a place where they could discuss the issues of the day, share news stories and organize.
So can't all that be done on Facebook?
"We don't think the fundamentally social context of Facebook is where people want to have those conversations," Mahan said. "We all know that one friend who is constantly posting the political news every day and shouting from the hilltops about their political beliefs. It's is a place with a like button, not a dislike button."
Brigade would also provide what Mahan calls "feedback loops," so users can see what their collective actions are doing and how decision makers are reacting.
Brigade's founders are adamant about not merely creating another online political tool that will help enhance some form of citizenry -- like mapping polling stations or charting candidates' positions on issues.
"It's not enough to just give people more information or to make things more accessible or more efficient," Mahan said. "That's helpful. But when we get to solving really difficult social problems, we've got to actually enhance the interactions between people."
But despite Brigade's pedigree and funding, some political and tech commentators remain dubious.
"I predict they're going to fail," said Micah Sifry, author of the just released The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn't Transformed Politics (Yet) and co-founder of Tech President, a nonpartisan site that examines the effect of technology on civic engagement.
"People are not looking for one site where they congregate to do their generic political activity," said Sifry, who questioned whether the company is living "in its own Silicon Valley bubble."
Still, Windon is confident that idealism can be a money-maker.
"If we can capture people's attention," Windon said, "we will have a monetizable product."
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle