Facebook Revolt: Protest Bites the Tool That Feeds It

Facebook Revolt: Protest Bites the Tool That Feeds It

BY Editors | Wednesday, September 6 2006

[Editor's note: This article is adapted, with the permission of the author, from his original post on his Facebook profile where it appeared this morning at 1:38am]

What if someone threw an online revolution and no one knew about it? Well right now there’s an online revolution occurring on the social networking site Facebook. And it might just have some unexpected implications for politics.

For those of you unfamiliar with Facebook, here’s a quick introduction. Originally created in 2004, the social networking site has expanded into the seventh-most trafficked site with nearly 8 million users. It focuses on college and high school students, allowing them to create a personal profile page that can then be linked to the accounts of other friends, creating a network of interlinked profiles. Currently the site is only open to college and high school students, though there has been limited recent expansion into companies and workplaces. Part of the reason for Facebook’s success is that it’s an online social network grounded in a physical space (i.e. a college campus) meaning that many of the faces and relationships on the site also exist in real life.

Yesterday, Facebook launched a new feature called feeds, which is a live stream of constant updates on the recent activities of your Facebook friends. Everything you or your friends do on Facebook, from adding new friends, to changing your profile, or commenting on other people’s pictures, is now streamed live to your homepage when you log onto the site. It was new, technologically impressive, and unexpected.

And a lot of people didn’t like it. Really didn’t like it. It was a significant change from the old Facebook interface and many felt as if it was a violation of their privacy. To many it just “made stalking too easy.”

One of Facebook’s features is the ability to start groups accessible to anyone on the Facebook network called “Global Groups.” And so many protest global groups were created yesterday to protest the change to the site. (Note: Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's creator, has commented on these concerns on the facebook blog.) One group in particular, "Students against Facebook News Feed (Official Petition to Facebook),"; somehow connected the intangible elements of luck and timing to become the most popular “anti-feed” group.

By 11:55pm on Tuesday, its first day of existence, the group gone from 0 members to 68,607. At 12:55am it had grown to 85,521 members, having added nearly 20,000 members in an hour. At 2:06pm today there were 223,460 members, having almost doubled in size in 12 hours.

In essence, the group went viral.

Except that it didn’t, not in the way that we usually think about viral distribution on the internet. Viral distribution has traditionally involved the action of passing something along, either via email, or blog, etc. Traditionally spreading the word about the “anti-feed” group would have required two separate and distinct actions, first joining the group (which takes about 5-10 seconds to do and requires no follow-up) and then spreading the word (either via active means – email, instant-messaging, etc. or passive means – blogging, away messages, etc).

But with the creation of the "feed"; feature at Facebook has removed the active element once necessary for information distribution because it automatically updates your friends. Of course people still have to sort through stuff and decide whether or not they care, but the act of distributing of that information in Facebook has been automated.

Every time someone joins the Facebook group "students against Facebook news feed," every single friend that user has is made aware of this the next time they login, without any action other than joining the group being required from the user.

Every time someone joins the group, more people are automatically made aware of its existence. And the more people aware of its existence, the more people who are likely to join the group. Repeat for exponential growth. The ultimate irony of the situation is that the feature they are protesting is the very reason for their unimaginable success. But the implications of the grassroots on-the-fly organized effort are jaw-dropping.

There are around 8 million users on Facebook, and (conservatively) assuming they each have 40 friends, then a group with 225,659 members has already placed this group into the feeds of nearly 9,000,000 users (the entire Facebook population). Think about those numbers. In the past, 100,000 out of 8,000,000 was only 1% of the population. But now...with the feed...it means that 1% have raised awareness of something to an ENTIRE population in 24 hours WITHOUT effort.

Imagine the applications in the political world, if a candidate could raise his name ID from nothing to 100% in less than 24 hours for a minimal outlay of effort. Of course the Facebook world is a very different situation but its lessons shouldn’t be discounted.

It’s something I call exponential awareness, which inevitably in turns leads to exponential growth. For online organizers it’s a fascinating look into the growth potential of issue awareness using new venues of communication in a changing world.

One of the cardinal laws of technology development is the law of unintended uses. In other words, people will adopt technology for uses for which it wasn’t originally designed or intended in often unexpected ways.

The new Facebook features combined the law of unintended uses with the law of unintended consequences and a dash of irony…and the result is a revolution that almost no one knows about.

Adam Conner is a recent graduate of George Washington Univeristy where he studied political communication. He currently works on Gov. Mark Warner’s internet team at Forward Together.

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