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First Street Gives Washington Insiders Their Own Social Network

What happens when
a Washington phone book goes digital?

First Street Gives Washington Insiders Their Own Social Network

CQ Press president John Jenkins sat down in a client's office, in 2006, and was surprised to find years-old stacks of his company's congressional staff directories sitting on a shelf. The 1,500-page beasts are published several times a year, meant to be replaced like a phone book. But clients often needed them to prepare reports on who and where people were—four, five, even 10 years ago. That's when Jenkins realized: "We have a treasure trove of content. And we're not in the phone-book business."

CQ then invested millions of dollars to painstakingly digitize its decades' worth of data. The result: First Street, a sort of LinkedIn for Washington insiders, making it perhaps the most powerful social network you've never heard of. The platform launched in April and already features more than 240,000 government staffers and 43,000 registered lobbyists. All have their own profile pages, which include in-depth information on work histories, legislative backgrounds, and professional relationships.

That's especially valuable for the $3-billion-a-year lobbying industry—an insular world based on knowing where to find a sympathetic ear. Now, for a $3,000 annual subscription fee, First Street lays bare every power player's past and (depending on how you look at it) soft spots. A data-visualization service called Coalition Builder even spins an interactive web of connections between legislation and lobbyists. (There are roughly 2 million possible links.) So a communications company, for example, could easily find its best path to insiders at the FCC. "No one else has the information we have," says First Street product lead Stephen Stesney. "You can now see very quickly who's affecting policy."

First Street's business model is unlike any other social network's. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter depend on viral growth and thrive on leveraging proprietary user data with advertisers, who want to reach a certain subset of the sites' consumers. First Street does the opposite: It populates its own network, then licenses that data so interested parties can reach whomever they wish.

That is to say, CQ figured out a way to market the data it had already gathered—and sell it right back to the people who helped it gather them. Welcome to Washington.

[Image: Flickr users Speaker John Boehner, Greg Skidmore, Republican Conference, and Third Way; Anna Eshoo; Herb Kohl]

A version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.