Will Facebook change politics?


by Sunny
27th July, 2007 at 3:18 pm    

Anyone who thinks Facebook will soon revolutionise politics should be shot. Ok, maybe I exaggerate slightly, but military-style executions aren’t so bad, are they?

But seriously, since Social Networking and Web 2.0 become increasingly used buzzwords in the media landscape and journalists sign up in droves, I expect this question to crop up much more.


(picture from this Guardian profile of founder Mark Zuckerberg)

I have now been fervently addicted to the website Facebook for several months now. Of course my excuse is that I wanted to learn how social networking works and what political opportunities it can offer. Unfortunately the short answer is: not much and not anytime soon. So if anyone out there is trying to sell you a political campaign through social networks now, fire them.

To be fair, Facebook has many advantages over its competitors for those interested in politics and social issues.

The most important is the homepage, which notifies you of developments on your own profile and offers a glance at what your friends have been doing. It works brilliantly as the electronic equivalent of word-of-mouth hype because everyone can be plugged into what their peers are reading, buying, watching at the cinema or checking out on YouTube. You can even announce that you’ve split up from your partner and are now ‘Interested in Random Play’. Anyway, I digress.

For niche commercial or non-profit organisations hoping to build up a profile through word-of-mouth this is the holy grail. For politics the evidence is less clear. While I’m not sure it helps politicians attract more people to support their campaigns, it certainly accelerates the proliferation of social issue groups.

For example your friends know if you’ve joined a group for vegetarians; to end honour killings; build inter-faith dialogue or even to boycott Nestle. They may be tempted to follow you or you can invite them with ease.

The recent introduction of outside applications has taken this to another level. Barack Obama’s team almost instantly introduced their own application informing you of their candidate’s activities. Another application list all the US politicians on Facebook, allowing you to declare support for.

And there are applications that engage users in other ways. You can list and join causes and donate money to them; make a pledge; work with others to drive change or simply display a clock telling you when Bush will be out of office. Hours of fun, if you’re a political junkie like me.

The technology is still naescent and it is likely that more sophisticated applications will eventually arrive to allowing more interactivity and involvement. But while the future looks bright, right now the sky is fairly overcast.

The first obvious limitation of Facebook is numerical – there aren’t enough people using it compared to traditional tools such as email, for political engagement.

More than that however its Groups system is fairly useless. People sign up to Groups more as a form of fashion statement, indicating a vague interest, rather than a plan of action. Even though Plane Stupid has over 600 members for example, I doubt anywhere near would go on a demonstration. Plus the functionality is bog standard. The only useful function of starting a group is being able to easily email all its members. Constructive discussions are rarely had.

Unsurprisingly then, politicians are unsure how to use Facebook. Among my ‘friends’ I can count Ming Campbell, Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears (actually I ditched her recently) and Peter Hain. None of the Labour deputy leadership candidates sent any email to their friends during the election. The only ones I got were from Jon Cruddas’ campaign, and he’s not even signed up.

So while I share some of Mark Hanson’s optimism in an article on CIF earlier this week, social networking is unlikely to offer tangible benefits to politicians here or in the United States in the near future.

Platforms such as Myspace, Bebo and Facebook do however present themselves as great places to recruit members. But they then have to be taken out of the platform to ensure proper interaction.

Even organisations such as MoveOn.org and Media Matters rely on basic email or blogging technology rather than cutting edge Web 2.0 goodies like mashups.

On current form it offers more opportunities to single-issue groups such as Greenpeace to raise money and awareness of campaigns, or for others to mobilise people around peace demonstrations. How all this changes in the long term is anyone’s guess. But the future is not yet here.


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Filed in: Party politics,Technology






9 Comments below   |  

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  1. Leon — on 27th July, 2007 at 4:47 pm  

    I had some hope that FB would compliment political action in the real world (never really believed it should or will replace it) but with the introduction of those apps recently its becoming more MySpace and thus frivolous.

    There’s just too many ‘fun’ apps and not enough really useful ones. It means they lose the incentive to develop FB properly which means things like decent formating for notes or forum discussion (I think the lack of decent discussion is impaired by the technical set up, take a look at popular forums such as Urban75.com to see what I mean) aren’t likely any time soon.

    Groups really are underdeveloped and need upgrading, there’s no way to add RSS feeds for your news on them for example. Events work fine and probably have some use for mobilising people but again limited if used on their own.

    Anyway, this all might be moot not least because if the court case goes badly it might get turned off but because the over all aims of FB are different to what I’d want. Basically the owner wants FB to one day become an operating system; take a look at were Google is going and you can see how this will work.

    Windows XP can’t be considered a good political tool so FB wont either ultimately.

  2. TheFriendlyInfidel — on 30th July, 2007 at 12:41 pm  

    Facebook will not affect polictics today. However my sisters friend that is at Oxford Uni has nearly 400 friends listed there. When she and her friends are 35 that list will give her access to an old boys network that will put todays to shame.

    Yes it will affect policitics by effecting influence and the social coechion of real existing social groups, not my having “veggie” groups or by organizing policital campaigns.

    The one thing that is immediately affecting people is relationships, you can a one wife / girlfriend, you can even be in an open relationship, but you cannot have multiple relationships. This has two effects, firstly its harder to two time a girl and when a relationship comes to an end facebook announces it to EVERYBODY YOU KNOW making it the point of official break up.

    Today we are playing with this tool as it is exicting, new but how will be viewing in 2 years time?

    TFI

  3. sonia — on 30th July, 2007 at 1:07 pm  

    good one TFI – my friends are finding it incredibly annoying the fact that once you’ve listed yourself in a relationship, if you change the status, EVeryone finds out!

    and it’s hard to keep secrets, if you’re trying to have multiple relationships in secret, FB is the worst route you can go down. ( heh :-) )

  4. TheFriendlyInfidel — on 30th July, 2007 at 2:03 pm  

    Interestingly the friends that I have that do that sort of thing, don’t like the site at all. Although they don’t admit it I think that this is the reason.

    It makes you wonder if in years to come, your facebook binding (or simular site) maybe as important as socially important a marriage …

    (Nice ‘seeing’ you again Sonia!)

    TFI

  5. Sunny — on 30th July, 2007 at 2:49 pm  

    my friends are finding it incredibly annoying the fact that once you’ve listed yourself in a relationship, if you change the status, EVeryone finds out!

    Lol. Well one doesn’t actually have to have their relationship status listed.

    I think the social networks point is good, although it also helps people create networks across and beyond traditional alumni grounds. Through blogging I’ve made a network of contacts and friends far beyond my school or uni.

  6. sonia — on 30th July, 2007 at 3:00 pm  

    i know sunny, but most people do when they first log on, (usually so as to not attract too many weirdos! or get their partner thinking they’re there to ‘get whatever they can’ ;-)

  7. sonia — on 30th July, 2007 at 3:02 pm  

    heh nice ‘seeing’ you too tfi shouldn’t you be adding me as a friend on Fb? :-)

    i met someone at a ‘feminist’magazine launch party i went to on thursday – it turned out he was there investigating allegations that it was a cult! he’s going to add me as a fb friend so i can find out how his ‘research’ goes – that should make for a good ‘how do you know this person..’ entry! hyuk :-)

  8. MatGB — on 31st July, 2007 at 9:52 am  

    Morning all, catching up with this post as it turned up in my Facebook blog friends thing, I may need to go check my feedreader again, silly thing keeps missing stuff.

    Anyway. I think, fundamentally, I disagree with you Sunny. It’s already beginning to take a slow effect, and I’m pretty sure that effect will increase over time. But before that, I’m going to point those worried about stuff showing in feeds at the privacy options:
    http://www.facebook.com/privacy.php?view=feeds

    You can set it to not display changes to your relationship status if you want to. Yes, not being able to list secondary relationships is annoying, but my SO and I decided to simply set our status as ‘complicated’ (not Open, that seems wrong somehow), which works well, and it does provoke honesty, which I approve of in relationships.

    You can also delete any item in your profile feed by looking at your profile and clicking the ‘X’ next to the story; easy, innit. I learnt all these tricks way before I even signed up, I refer you all to DoctorVee’s rather nicely named post:
    http://doctorvee.co.uk/2006/09/09/the-utter-cretins-guide-to-privacy-on-facebook/

    Anyway. social networking is unlikely to offer tangible benefits to politicians here or in the United States in the near future. On this I actually disagree. Last Tuesday, I attended an event in the House, organised by a Facebook Lib Dem group. Chris Huhne was hosting, and gave a great presentation on the projects he’s working on. He knew several of the people there (London based activists plus a few others such as myself and Jennie), but the whole thing was organised through the site, including event invitations and similar.

    Afterwards, there was a meal which about half the attendees went to; a fair few were PPCs or Cllrs, and it gave them a chance to network, trade ideas, etc in a social setting. The whole advantage of Fb is it makes it really easy to promote events and see who is going, nice and quickly. Yes, numbers are low now, but for a group of this size to exist already, just, effectively, through Fb promotion, is pretty good.

    A different example is James Graham’s Freedom of Information Bill campaign, he set up a facebook group, and a bunch of us invited friends and similar to join, and it eventually got 300 members, despite it being a minority interest campaign; several of those that joined were not normal activists, but it allowed James to send out updates and information, and we know from feedback that letters &c were sent to Parliamentarians as a result. As a first attempt, it went well, and kudos to James for setting it all up.

    Sure, numbers aren’t high enough yet, but I’ve seen estimates saying that 1 in 10 Londoners uses the site, for example, and that number is dispropotionately young, educated and active. As the site developes, the number of people will continue to grow; virtually all current undergrads I’m in contact with use it, for example.

    Groups can be improved, but like all, what you get out of it is dependent on what you put into it, and I’m pretty sure they’ll continue to add useful features.

    Is it the ultimate panacea? Nah, something newer and funkier will come along at some point, but it’s an open API, they’ll link in and extract data, etc. I think it offers a great chance to really get information spread out, based on interests and friends groups.

    Chance. That’s the keyword though.

    *goes to add Sunny for later demonstrations…*

  9. sanjay — on 6th August, 2007 at 1:31 pm  

    Facebook (like any other web2.0 sites, or the internet in general) is in itself not likely to revolutionize politics. That’s not saying politics is “only about the content” and that new forms of technology aren’t shaping our modes of communication and identification.

    While we are increasingly inter-connected, and existing divisions such as the private and public blur (both the personal and political), net technology enables all sorts of groupings to emerge.

    Though increased sociality doesn’t necessarily lead to progressive movements. Far right/fascist groups have seriously utilized the net, and Facebook has not been immune from it either. http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2007/08/05/facebook-the-bnp/trackback/

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