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Facebook Changes "Political Views" Options to Political Parties

BY Michael Whitney | Thursday, March 6 2008

Also posted on MichaelWhitney.net

Yesterday Facebook changed the way it lets users identify their political views, replacing a simple spectrum of views with a cluttered list of international political parties. Organizing people into political parties allows Facebook to sell microtargeted ads to advertisers looking to reach, say, Democrats in Ohio. Unfortunately, the change in emphasizing in party over position will organize a small base of users who self-identify as members of the national parties, and scatter the rest into free-form identification.

From its inception Facebook offered a healthy handful of political views from which users can choose: very liberal, liberal, moderate, conservative, very conservative, as well as libertarian and apathetic. Most everyone with political views would feel comfortable selecting one of those seven segments. Though for some left-leaning people "liberal" was inadequate, and instead preferred "progressive." In summer 2007 MoveOn.org staff Justin Hamilton (corrected) created a Facebook group asking the site to add "progressive" as a political views option, which to date has about 500 members.

What Facebook opened up today is far beyond what any users were asking for.

In its blog announcement, Facebook's internationalization manager said the new changes allow people to express their political identities "just as you can with Religious Views." This is not entirely true - Facebook organizes religions into two hierarchical categories. For instance, if you're Catholic, the default selection as you type is "Christian - Catholic." If you're a Buddhist, you can select Buddhist, or you can specify you're "Buddhist - Theravada." If you want to say you're a Democrat, you have to write out "Democratic P" to find our country's party - otherwise you'll end up in Venezuela's Democratic Action Party. When you write out "Progressive" in political views, the field defaults to "Progressive Canadian Party" unless you click out of the box.

What Facebook should do is *actually* structure political views like religious views, into subcategories, rather than a giant list of international political parties. First, out of the site's 65 million active users, only about one-third up to 60% (thx, Fred - Facebook needs to update its press page.) live outside the US. What incentive does Facebook have in defaulting to a list of political parties relevant to small clusters of users?

Political parties should be options as subcategories of political views, so users can still identify first by their positions and second by party affiliation, if any. For instance, just as you can say you're "Buddhist - Theravada," Facebook should make it easy to identify as "Progressive - Democratic Party," "Conversative," or "Moderate - Republican."

Introducing two levels of political views is in Facebook's financial interest; by effectively hiding US parties and encouraging free-form writing in "Political Views," Facebook misses the opportunity to identify people across broad spectrums of political views. With yesterday's changes, advertisers can target people who self-identify as members of the Republican or Democratic parties, but lose the ability to find neatly organized groups of people based on commonly accepted ideological identifiers. You can already see it starting to happen. TechCrunch's Michael Arrington writes in his glowing review of yesterdays's changes:

I chose to support the “Alliance For Congo’s Renewal” party for now. Just because I really don’t need to see any more political ads.

Free-form political affiliation is all well and good, and that should be kept as-is; it just doesn't make sense for Facebook to disperse this important information and include largely irrelevant options.

It's good that Facebook is opening up its profile options for users, but they need to seriously rethink what they just did to their "Political Views."

Screenshot of writing "Progressive" in "Political Views"

Screenshot of writing "Democrat" in "Political Views"