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Political Outreach on Facebook

BY Editors | Thursday, October 11 2007

Cross-posted on MyDD.

Earlier this week in Washington, Facebook hosted two consecutive workshops that it dubbed the Facebook Political Summit.  "Our goal is to make you win," announced Josh Rahn, director of sales, before laying out the numbers, as reported by J.P. Freire of the NY Times, "[O]f 45 million active users, 80 percent are of voting age. These users spend an average of 22 minutes on the site a day, more than enough time to hear the campaign's pitch."  And Facebook is changing.  College students who used to be Facebook's exclusive audience now "account for a third to half of its membership."

Facebook to Alter Limits on Group Messaging

Shortly after the launch of the official Obama campaign website on February 10th, Tamer Abouzeid, a student in Chicago, used the personal fundraising feature to create a group fundraising page for the Facebook group One Million Strong for Barack.  He then posted a discussion thread.  

The response was immediate --- by February 27th, two weeks later, the Facebook group had raised $10,000 with an average donation of about $30.   By the end of the fundraising quarter, we had raised $15,000, but it had begun to taper off.  

Despite having a huge membership, we had no way of contacting them, and we had begun to hit up the active membership that posted in the discussion threads multiple times.  Facebook controls had effectively nipped the effort in the bud.

Obama supporters on Facebook, despite Obama's early dominance there, have struggled to organize.  Admins of Facebook groups are able to message their entire membership with a click --- until the group reaches a thousand members.  One of my first posts on MyDD back in May complained somewhat bitterly about this.

Organizing groups of volunteers to manually send out messages to the membership list only resulted in several being abruptly suspended or banned by the anti-spam controls.  We even formed an Obama admin collaboration group, with the goal of being able to mass-message the admins of Obama groups with less than a thousand members (of which there are hundreds on Facebook) who could then mass-message their memberships.  

At the same time that Facebook was receiving mountains of free press for being on the cutting edge of campaigning amid countless articles about the growth of One Million Strong for Barack, Facebook policy was effectively smothering the group's ability to do much at all.

On May 8th, Ezra Callahan of Facebook responded in a comment to the wall of a meta-Facebook group protesting the message limit:1. Technical limitations - Sending messages at that volume causes technical problems. We're looking into that, but it's not an easy issue.

2. Spam concerns - I disagree with the sentiment that users join groups knowing they're going to get messaged. Especially since the 1,000-member cap has been in place for so long, I think most users assume they won't get bothered by any large silly groups they join (e.g. "The Largest Group on Facebook", etc.). Sure, users can leave/join groups at their own discretion, but I think people would be really unhappy if they started getting spammed by large groups or felt like they couldn't join such groups in the first place.

That said, obviously there is a lot of utility in being able to message a large set of people for legitimate groups and causes like the one you describe. So we're actively looking into this issue to see if we can find the right balance here.Months continued to pass.  Hooman Hedayati reported receiving wild applause after posing the question to a Facebook representative and panelist at the Campus Progress Conference at the end of June.

Yesterday at the Facebook workshop, Callahan announced:acknowledged a forthcoming "fundamental shift" in policies that will soon render the 1,000-supporter cut-off a thing of the past -- and not just for political candidates, but for other groups, as well. Changes should take place before January."Such a change might be too late to have an impact in this presidential election.  The real story of what young people might have accomplished this cycle on Facebook has already been smothered.

Pro-Growth vs. Pro-Efficacy of Facebook groups

One Million Strong for Barack also faced another problem.  After experiencing a surge of growth, its admins wanted to expand the scope and impact of the group.  They wanted to encourage members to volunteer, to donate, to spread materials about the campaign.  Whereas before the group site had been a simple set of goals and deadlines for growing the number of members, the goals were taken down and replaced with calls to action.  

Growth, which had already slowed, began to stall, and then membership began to plummet.  From a peak of around 350,000 members, the group fell back toward 300,000.  I suspect that Facebook groups the size of One Million Strong for Barack experience a great deal more turnover than one would expect and that without new growth they begin to decline.

When the growth goals were restored to the homepage a month ago (and the school year began again), the group climbed back to 370,000 and has resumed growing --- albeit slowly.  Concentrating the website on getting new members to hit the invite button has been successful, but frustratingly it has seemed to be an either/or proposition with organizing.  

One Million Strong Against Hillary Clinton -- a cynical effort from a New Hampshire Republican party operative that sees bipartisanship in shared and unquestioning contempt, posted an unflattering glaring photo of Clinton in an artificial, greenish alien-glow, and has no ambitions whatsoever for organizing -- has focused exclusively on growth.  They copied both Farouk's name and his method, posting milestones and deadlines:

100 Members- February 20th GOAL MET 2/19
1,000 Members- March 20th GOAL MET 2/20
10,000 Members- April 15th GOAL MET 2/28
50,000 Members- May 8th GOAL MET 3/15
100,000 Members- May 22nd GOAL MET 3/26
250,000 Members- June 5th GOAL MET 5/7
500,000 Members- January 8th, 2008
1,000,000 Members- November, 2008The group does not even have a discussion board, let alone a wall --- it clearly has no actual desire to engage with the community other than to feed its own growth.  

It raises an interesting question though that doesn't seem to have been posed recently.  How can these large Facebook groups both be effective organizing tools and continue to grow?  (I have a few ideas about this that I've been working with Farouk and Lindsey on.  Hopefully we'll have something to announce soon.)

Republicans Apparently Didn't Show Up

TechPresident reported on the audience of the Facebook workshop:Attendees included representatives from advocacy groups, the DNC, the DCCC, and some Democratic Congressional offices. According to Freire, "Very few Republicans were present, aside from a lone Ron Paul campaign staff member and members of the Young Republican National Federation."

Lastly, a Cool New Voter Facebook Registration Application

I also wanted to write today about a great new Facebook application called 2008 U.S. Voter Registration.  The application asks a couple of brief questions: your state of residence and if you're registered to vote already.  It then allows you to register.  

If you've already registered, you can make a pledge to promise to vote, invite friends to register, and sign up to receive an email reminder to cast your ballot on a date of your choosing anytime in October or November 2008 up to Election Day.

If you make the pledge, it is announced on your Newsfeed with a link inviting others to join in.

The application is still very basic and remains focused on the general election, but the creator has indicated he would add the primaries if there is sufficient interest.

Thus far, 33 people have registered to vote through the application, and an additional 90 has pledged to register.  It has generated that much attention yet, so far as I know, but it seems very functional and has all the elements that I hoped for in a June 7th post about the Obama Facebook application.