Read the Writing on the Wall

Read the Writing on the Wall

BY Greg Bloom | Monday, August 27 2007

When Howard Dean “friended” Micah Sifry on Facebook, Micah announced his skepticism about the meaning of this relationship: “What kind of “meeting” is taking place here, between a famous person’s Facebook profile and college students?”

With all due respect, I think Micah’s question falls into the linguistic trap of whether social network “friends” really are your friends. If we set aside our notions of authenticity (that’s often a useful thing to do, anyways) we’ll see that what’s happening here is the establishment of a new channel of communication between a citizen and a political leader - nothing more or less. And that’s quite a lot.

Even if Howard Dean’s Facebook profile was managed by the DNC’s lowliest volunteer, that profile page still represents Howard Dean in a much more meaningful way than, say, howard.dean@dnc.org represents Dean. Much more to the point: if Micah was to say something to Howard Dean by posting on his Facebook wall, that interaction would be public – it would stick around (assuming it’s not deleted), and all of Micah’s social network could see that he said it, too.

The potential for this new channel of communication is actually quite profound – once you stop thinking about how politicians can use it to reach out to new citizens, and start thinking about how citizens can use it to reach out to their politicians. We’re talking about tossing around some really disruptive sheep.

By contrast, consider the sad little secret that’s well known around these parts: the most commonly used tactic of online advocacy—Email Your Legislator!—is quietly acknowledged to be of limited usefulness at best in leveraging politicians. Hill staffers will readily admit that the torrential floods of emails seem like spam and are treated as such. But those who run these email petition campaigns don’t seem to be deeply bothered by the ineffectiveness of their chosen tool - probably because email petitions are still the best way for them to build their own list, regardless of whether anyone in power ever sifts through them and reacts accordingly.

Now a post on a politician’s wall would do exactly what an email does not: it publicly manifests constituent sentiment within in a designated space, and this sentiment is even linked directly to the identity of the constituent. Super-Plus Viral Bonus: as the message is delivered to the political leader, it can also be simultaneously communicated to the active constituent’s entire social network.

At the Personal Democracy Forum last May, danah boyd urged the room of campaign technologists to consider online sites like MySpace and Facebook to be “networked publics,” rather than another platform from which to broadcast a message. Referring to the celebrities who’ve used MySpace to not just collect “friends” but interact with them and build incredible excitement through their presence, she asked: “Can this work for politicians?” She suggested that candidates make the rounds to the walls of “friends,” spending some time to give “digital handshakes on virtual receiving lines.” (Indeed, Wes Clark appears to have picked up the good habit of wishing his supporters happy birthday in this way.) danah, ever aware of her audience, was making a point to campaign professionals about how politicians’ networked presences can be useful for campaigns; but if she’d asked them to imagine how politicians’ presences could be useful to an aroused and networked citizenry, she might have freaked some of that audience out.

And this is why Facebook did something remarkable last year with their Election 2006 project, though it went virtually unnoticed at the time. All candidates running for Congress and state governors’ office were given “Elections” profiles. After the election, Facebook kept profiles up for all sitting U.S. Representatives, Senators and state governors. Some candidates’ staff took the opportunity to create a page and build a list of young supporters; a few candidates deleted these pages; many candidates ignored it entirely, and simply left a default page with minimal info and an American flag profile picture. For these special politician profiles, anyone can become “friends” without even needing approval. Most of the politicians have a couple hundred friends, and ten or so wall postings from fawning supporters. On many of the walls, there’s one or two supporters who have expressed support for a given piece of legislation or for a particular stance on an issue.

There is an opportunity here. For months now I’ve been getting on the losing side of arguments about the utility of the Change.org and Facebook Causes app – I’d pan them because they have adopted a narrow fundraising paradigm that doesn’t seem to me to fit right, but I’d lose these arguments because I never was able to verbalize what exactly these political activism applications should encourage. I don’t think I’m going to lose that argument any more! It sucks to be reminded that you’ve raised zero dollars to stop global warming—and may I say that it must somehow suck even more to be reminded that you’ve raised a cool ten dollars to stop global warming—but if I could show my friends how many politicians I’ve told to do something about global warming… well, I just might shoot my mouth off at politicians all day.

So much of what’s exciting about this aspect of social networking is still in the realm of the hypothetical. The robustness of these interactions will depend upon some pretty fine technical points (like, when I post on a Senator’s wall, how widely will that message be distributed through my friends’ feeds? What if the message gets deleted from the politician’s page – is there a way so that my network still sees that I posted it in the first place?) Presumably, staffers will keep their bosses’ profile pages sparkly clean; presumably, once they realize how disruptive these walls could be, many politicians would take them down entirely (although many others would learn to embrace it). On the other hand, future “political action” apps will surely augment the process and make the Facebook interactions between constituents and their elected representatives even more dynamic.

But at this very moment there are a whole slew of politicians on Facebook (and pretty much every presidential candidate is on MySpace) who, whether or not they know it, have invited constituents to engage in a brand new kind of dialogue. It’s exactly the kind of dialogue (direct, public, and scalable) that volunteer groups like Energize America and movements like Step it Up could use to direct their web-savvy grassroots energies and force their agenda in front of (or rather, a column over and down a bit below) their elected representative faces. I don’t think anyone has used this tactic yet (although I didn’t check every politician’s profile, and it’s a big internet – so if you’ve seen something like this that’s been done already, please share) but surely someone’s gonna “get it” soon, and there’s the potential for them to get it really, really right.

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