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  • 10.19.11

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.”

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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]

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