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Has Facebook Jumped the Shark as a Political Tool?

BY Colin Delany | Monday, May 5 2008

Cross-posted on e.politics

I hate to risk alienating my new BFF Mark Zuckerberg, but has Facebook's moment in the sun as a hot political tool passed? And if so, what does that tell us about the future of social networking sites for online political organizing, and even about the future of Facebook itself?

We've now seen more than a year of intense use of social networking sites by the U.S. presidential campaigns (and even longer use by issue-advocacy groups), which gives us a solid base of information and experience to judge just how effective Facebook is as a political tool — both for organized political campaigns and advocacy groups and for individual political activists. The verdict? Facebook has not lived up to a lot of its initial political hype, and for reasons that are perfectly natural considering what kind of a site it is. The crux:

Facebook is Not (Yet) a Mass-Communications Tool

What are social networking sites designed to do? Connect people, of course, but connect them in distinctive ways depending on the specific site. LinkedIn, for instance, joins people who want to maintain relationships for professional reasons, while special-interest social networking sites (see connect people who are passionate about a particular topic.

Looking at Facebook, it's clear that its user model has a definite bias toward connecting people one-on-one or in small groups. Unlike MySpace, which was designed to make it easy for bands to contact fans en masse, Facebook's core functions revolve around individual connections between individual people. Of course, features like Mini-Feeds, the Wall and various Applications create social connections and social spaces, but the mass-messaging features included in Groups and Fan Pages are limited and have the feel of afterthoughts rather than core functions.

Groups and Apps, in turn, actually illustrate what has arisen as a significant problem of using the site for political purposes: clutter. Anecdotal and survey evidence suggests that as soon as Groups and Apps spread widely, Facebook users became overwhelmed by the volume of invitations they received (as an example, I currently have 173 pending requests of some kind — sorry if I didn't install the "what's your stripper name" application you suggested). The experience of advocacy groups on the site is illustrative of the results:

Facebook Advocacy: Too Many Groups, Too Little Attention

How many Facebook Causes have you seen that had raised precisely zero dollars? How many Groups have you joined, only to promptly ignore every message you receive from them? Even the winning campaigns in the recent Facebook Causes Challenge had only a few thousand donors apiece, and none but the top four broke out of the hundreds of donors. To put that in context, I know people who've assembled lists of hundreds of donors for a walk-a-thon simply by bugging their friends and family via email, phone and in person.

By contrast, those groups that have found advocacy success on Facebook tend to adopt an approach that USES the one-on-one nature of the site. As one small example, I spoke to a group of pro-choice activists a few weeks ago, many of whom work with students on college campuses. When I asked how Facebook fit into their work, the overwhelming response was that it was essentially an email replacement — they employed Facebook messages to reach individual supporters or small groups of supporters when they were preparing for events or promoting a particular message. The Genocide Intervention Network demonstrates a much more comprehensive and strategic approach but the same basic idea: as Ivan Boothe wrote last year,

For the Genocide Intervention Network, which is the organization I'm involved with that has been most active in social networking, involvement in the "social web" is really an outgrowth of our entire mission: To form the first anti-genocide constituency, and to empower our members with the tools to prevent and stop genocide.

The words "constituency" and "empower" are key. We're not simply looking for a mailing list or an ATM — we want an educated, active movement of people interested in preventing and stopping genocide. Our members need to be able to think for themselves on the issue — to hold events in their communities, motivate others to take action, press their elected representatives to take stand — not to simply be another name on a list, but to be a hub in an ever-expanding network.

This is really the principle behind the social web: it's all about conversations. And for us, conversations are the perfect way to build a vibrant, effective movement.

Note that Ivan is describing something very different than traditional mass communications: he's talking about working closely (no doubt frequently one-on-one) with people on Facebook and other networking sites over a long period of time to help build a cadre of very committed activists — something that most electoral campaigns (and even most issue advocacy campaigns) simply can't do, whether because of lack of time or lack of resources.

Speaking of electoral campaigns, let's look next at what can we can learn from the current presidential campaign cycle:

The Presidential Experience: Facebook Is Nice To Have, But...

What online technologies that have actually mattered in the political world this year? The most obvious one is fundraising, of course, but we've also seen tremendous results from online video — ask Obama how much he's appreciated those clips of the Reverend Wright — and several candidates have put serious resources into blogger relations and blogger outreach. The killer application, of course, remains email — it's still the most reliable way for candidates to maintain a connection with supporters and encourage them to donate and to volunteer (and one-on-one, it's a damn good way to keep in touch with bloggers and mainstream-media reporters). At heart, Obama and Clinton have broken online fundraising records using email and a website that accepts credit cards, technology that's been widespread for more than a decade.

Social networking? Despite all of the attention paid to it in (occasionally breathless) media coverage, and the dutiful recording of the candidates' soc net numbers by sites like techPresident, Facebook, MySpace, et al have not proven to be terribly effective tools for campaigns. Does anyone really think that the fact that Obama has five times as many Facebook friends as Hillary Clinton has turned out to be significant? Demographically interesting and revealing, sure, but actually relevant to how the Democratic primary process has gone so far?

Campaign professionals have certainly caught on to this dynamic: for instance, when the DNC's Josh McConaha recently listed essential campaign tools, social networking sites were not in the top three. And at last month's Internet Advocacy Roundtable presentation, when an audience member asked a question that posited that the Obama campaign's online success came from social networking outreach, former Edwards staffer Tracy Russo quickly shot down that assumption, saying in essence that the Obama staff themselves wouldn't attribute their online support to the campaigns' use of Facebook or MySpace.

What has been politically interesting on Facebook this year to me, by contrast, is individual PEOPLE using the site for their OWN political purposes — telling their friends to support a candidate, go vote, etc., the same way they might put a bumper sticker on their car or a sign in their yard. Todd Zeigler noted this over a year ago in a quote in an early Post article on presidential online social networking:

"The key point here is that the support for Obama on these social-networking sites is not being driven by the campaign itself. It is something spontaneous as opposed to something the campaign itself is orchestrating."

Exactimundo — and we're right back to Ivan Boothe's point about social networking as conversation.

Elements of a Successful Political Facebook Strategy

Okay, if Facebook isn't really a mass communications tool, how CAN advocacy groups and political campaigns use the site and others like it to help spread their messages and build support? First off, they need to work with rather than against a site's basic structure, and in Facebook's case, that means getting down to the one-on-one: give the supporters the tools, and if they're motivated enough, they'll do the job for you.

  • A basic social networking presence sure can't hurt. Starting a Facebook Cause or Fan Page (or a MySpace profile) doesn't have to take a whole lot of time, and of course they have the potential to put you in front of people you might not have reached before. If that's all you do, though, you're not likely to get much in the way of results — without aggressive outreach, the vast majority of your potential audience will never see you.
  • Build a cadre of supporters quickly. Soc net support tends to build exponentially, which is natural in a system based on organic growth, so the faster you can assemble that initial group of friends, the faster you'll see the results. Work with your own staff to get them to reach out to friends and kinfolk, and of course mention it to your existing supporters via advocacy email or newsletter.
  • Rely on your supporters, and make sure they have the tools to spread the word. People have come up with plenty of good techniques to alert friends about an issue on Facebook, ranging from their Mini-Feeds (combine with Twitter for major geek points) to posted links to status updates ("Colin is...revealing that Facebook has no political clothes") to changing their profile pictures to an "I'm voting for..." image. The trick is, you can't MAKE supporters do anything, so you have to get them motivated enough to act and keep them that way. So if you're going to keep them around for the long term, you'd better figure out a way for them to get some value out of their involvement with your campaign — sure, the sense that they're helping to save the world is great, but recognition, rewards and competition can really get people moving.
  • Get them on your list. It's been in the Online Politics 101 article on social networking sites since e.politics launched, and for good reason — Facebook Groups and MySpace friend lists generally have abysmal response rates, often a tenth or hundredth that of a comparable email list. Unless you're investing in Ivan's long-term engagement strategy, get your soc net supporters to sign a petition or take some other action that gets them on your email list as fast as possible. The frequent predictions of email's death are still a bit premature.
  • Integrate your communications. One of the genius features of the Obama campaign this season has been its apparent integration of different online tools into a single communications mechanism. You want to stay in touch via Facebook? Done. Email? Done. Text message? Done — all that matters is that you want to stay in touch. Ultimately, this sort of integrated online communications strategy will become the norm, but for now, it's still out of reach for most advocacy groups and campaigns. Soon, though....

These ideas are just a sketch based on recent experience, and plenty of people will have better and more extensive strategies and techniques, but I bet that they rely on the basic truth that the dedicated social networking sites are exactly that: places for personal connection, not yet for mass communications.

The Future of Facebook

If Facebook hasn't lived up to the initial political hype, what does that tell us about the site's ultimate future? My Silicon Valley crystal ball done broke a long time ago, but I'll hazard a few guesses. First, we've seen plenty of social networking sites come and go over the years (Friendster!), and there's no magic that will keep MySpace and Facebook on top.

When Facebook dipped in the UK over the winter, for instance, plenty of online commenters danced on its grave, but this observation in The Guardian really jumped out at me: "Growth among the big players looks to be more about getting people from their competitors, not attracting new people to social networking." Of course, plenty of the world is un-networked still, but by now, most people in the developed world who want to be on social networking sites already are. So, Facebook will stay a soc net darling if it can continue to offer enough value to users that they don't defect to niche network sites like those created on Ning or to the Next Big Thing. Note that even LinkedIn has posted faster growth than Facebook fairly recently.

And honestly, I'm not sure that the current approach of constantly cramming the site full of new features is exactly the way to go (though that may reflect my advancing years: the research I cited earlier also shows that site clutter annoys older users more than those under 35). One thing I often heard people mention when they were jumping on the Facebook bandwagon a year or so ago was how "clean" the layout was compared with the frequent chaos of the MySpace universe (something that may mesh with the prep vs. nerd demographic breakdown of the two sites). I don't think that distinction applies so much anymore.

But the biggest question facing my new buddy Zuckerberg and the company's even newer COO is whether or not they can turn those tens of millions of users into billions of dollars for advertisers. Facebook's current annual revenue is around $150 million, about 1% of the company's theoretical valuation of $15 billion, and if we learned one thing during the first internet boom, it's that site users' eyeballs only count if you can turn them into dollars. I suspect that it'll take one-on-one social applications to make that conversion happen — traditional advertising hasn't cut it so far.

So, is Facebook jumping the shark? Politically, I think the answer is yes, at least as far as the initial hype goes. More broadly? Insuffient data so far. But if Facebook lines up on the shark tank, the resulting graphs will probably look something like this — and not nearly as exciting as THIS: