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Facebook's Manifest Destiny Runs Into Open Government

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, May 26 2010

Facebook's recent privacy changes reverberated loudly in and out of Washington. With many people grumbling about closing their Facebook accounts, U.S. senators have been making noises about calling in the Federal Trade Commission, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg even took to the Washington Post, DC's morning read, on Monday to issue something of a mea culpa. But some who work in government and in politics are, more quietly, talking about a slightly different problem with what Facebook has done. They're concerned that, in Facebook's quest for Internet ubiquity, the company has stepped into the relationships that government bodies and politicians have been building with citizens on Facebook, a relationship given a boost by President Barack Obama's open government push and one encouraged, aggressively, by Facebook.

The "U.S. Department of Commerce" Facebook page created by the agency itself.

Privacy changes weren't the only new thing Facebook was up to last month. The company rolled out a change in the very architecture of the site, designed to fulfill Zuckerberg's ambition, detailed during his F8 keynote address in San Francisco in late April, for "a Web that's smarter, more social, more personalized, and more semantically aware." The company calls them "community pages." If you think of Facebook as a landscape, think of community pages as an attempt by the company to set up way stations where it thinks its community of a few hundred million users might want them. Community pages are auto-generated by Facebook wherever a user might mention in their profile that they're a fan of something, or worked at some place, or had an interest in some field.

A "United States Department of Commerce" page created by Facebook as part of its "community pages" rollout.

The trouble was that in some case, people had already set up their own huts in those spots -- including government agencies and politicians. "Overall organizations that are using Facebook are pleased with it," said Gwynne Kostin, Director at the Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement at the U.S. General Services Administration. "But this did catch agencies off-guard. Some agencies have voiced a lot of concern about it that people looking for information on their agencies might mistake these community pages for official pages." Not helping matters is that in building these pages, Facebook scraped Wikipedia, and so some of the pages bear official seals, though community pages are marked by a banner noting their provenience. Where there had been an official Facebook page created by the U.S. Department of Commerce itself, for example, now there's at least one "community page" generated by Facebook. The Department of Homeland Security had stayed off of Facebook thus far. But now it finds itself looking at at least two auto-generated Facebook pages.

Writer and new media strategist Adriel Hampton first noted the community pages situation on his blog earlier this month, and commentators wrote in to note that government agencies aren't the only ones affected. Small businesses suddenly found themselves with new Facebook pages because a summer employee noted in her profile that she spent a season working there. techPresident/Personal Democracy Forum, as it turns out, now has a unique Facebook page because I listed us that way in my bio. (Don't blame us for not sprucing up the page; I just found out it existed this morning.)

In theory, Facebook's new community pages make a great deal of sense, filling in the gaps in the network that Facebook desperately wants to build. Argues the company, "We think your experience on Facebook will improve as your profile is turned into a living map of all the connections that matter to you, instead of a static list of your interests." I indeed, for example, might indeed want to connect with others who have an association with my hometown, or who also list Things Fall Apart as a favorite book.

But in practice, frankly, Facebook's new approach a bit of a mess. And perhaps extra-so for politicians and government agencies, who tend to be extra particular about their identities. There are now at least three Joe Bidens on Facebook, and two Cory Bookers. Various spellings and formations of the name of the Philadelphia City Council leaves them with at least three pages. The large number of pages dedicated to the Internal Revenue Service belies the actual popularity of that agency. And the IRS isn't even officially on Facebook. But it's big brother agency, the U.S. Treasury Department is. Oh, wait, this is the official Treasury page. Carefully curated pages pop up in Facebook search alongside haphazard community pages. Last April, GSA worked with Facebook to craft a careful agreement that made the platform one amenable to government. And the several million users of Facebook do hold a certain appeal. But the company's shift from platform to something more like an constructed environment makes some uncomfortable. One new media manager at a major government agency puts it this way: "It's my job to build new media strategy. Not theirs."

The company knows that, in rolling out community pages, it stepped into something. Facebook spokesperson Andrew Noyes sent along this statement: "We are working on a process right now, which will be available shortly, that will give Page owners the ability to request administrative control over a Community Page and have the content, as well as the people who’ve liked that Community Page migrated over to their Official Page." And indeed, Facebook isn't the first web company to run into this sort of issue as it attempts to build a business model. Last March, Jason Fried of the highly regarded firm 37signals took to task Get Satisfaction, an online service that set up customer pages for companies whether the companies cared to have them or not.

(I asked Fried to comment on the Facebook situation, figuring he'd know a thing or two about it. He warmly declined, saying he didn't much care what Facebook was up to, since he made it a point to stay off of Facebook. At least he thought he did. There's now a "community page" for Fried. )

Some in government aren't thrilled with Facebook's response to their concerns. Architecting online environments brings with it some responsibility, and there are those who think that Facebook might be on the cusp of shirking it. Said one government new media director, "They created a mess and said, 'Here, here's a way to fix it for us.'" And giving government entities a chance to claim community pages introduces other wrinkles. For one thing, there's the idea that Facebook users might find themselves linked up to official government pages they never intended to connect to, ones that might carry their own record-keeping requirements, for example. For another thing, a new community page might pop up every time a Facebook user mentions some obscure government office or project, sending government new media managers on a constant task to claim relevant profiles. And what do you do with a "community page" for something like the Department of Homeland Security, which never intended to be on Facebook in the first place? Delete it?

There's also a thread of hypocrisy running through Facebook's practice of generating pages as it sees fit. After Facebook pulled down a 30,000 member fan page for the online information clearinghouse Wikileaks last last month, I reported that the company argued that the profile was unacceptable because it was "inauthentic," by virtue of it not being created by the organization itself. And yes, there's now a Wikileaks community page.

Facebook finds itself in a tight spot. In the one hand, it wants to become more than it is, a version of the web much more than a humble platform. As it seeks to do that, it risks upsetting some of its core audience, including the government entities and politicians it has made a point of courting. Government, in the other corner, is enticed by a ready audience that might be willing to hear its message, and engage as a result. But to do it, they put themselves at the mercy of a corporate service that they have no real control over.

One new media manager sees the conflict as potentially deal breaking: "It might come to the point that, as government, we have no official presence on Facebook." GSA's Kostin, though, in hopeful that there's a win-win-win arrangement, good for government, good for citizens, and good for Facebook. "We're trying to figure out how to make this work out for everybody," she said.