Friday, February 27, 2009

Breaking down barriers to Facebook organizing.

Two years ago at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, Eli Pariser and I took MySpace to task for censorship on their site.

We began dropping hints about an "Internet user's rights movement." The main goal? Internet users working together (like a union) to win input into things like the "terms of service" that big sites like MySpace were able to change on a whim -- the equivalent of one side changing a contract after both sides signed.

At the time, such a movement seemed far-fetched. But then, it got a little more real. In late 2007, Facebook responded to resistance to Beacon after news stories were generated around the world. This past month, Facebook responded to similar objections to their new terms of service.

Then, this Thursday, Facebook did something very bold: They offered "users around the world an unprecedented role in determining the future policies governing the service." Facebook deserves major credit for kicking off a month-long conversation about what users want, and potentially ushering in a new era of transparency and users' rights.

Hundreds of people have already given feedback to Facebook about the "10 Principles" they proposed to guide their site. Many of these principles look great.

But I'm starting this blog to draw attention to a principle that was left off Facebook's list -- or that at least needs to be made more explicit:

Principle #11 -- Organizing people around issues shall be encouraged. Barriers to Facebook organizing shall be taken down.

Facebook has the potential to revolutionize how citizens engage in democracy and organize around issues together. Indeed, Facebook has increasingly made democratic participation part of its identity, co-hosting a presidential debate in 2008. But too many barriers to online organizing have remained on Facebook for too long, and this new era of users' rights is the time to break these barriers down.

What are these barriers to organizing? There are many -- so many that this entire blog will be dedicated to exploring them. (I can't do it alone. If you've got good examples of barriers to Facebook organizing and want to begin a conversation about them by blogging on this site, email right away!)

But here are a couple obvious examples:
  • Facebook group "success penalty" - part 1. Farouk Olu Aregbe formed the legendary "Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack)" group. Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of people joined. Facebook got tons of credit for organizing young people, including in the Washington Post. But after the group hit 1,000 people, Farouk was prohibited from sending email messages to his group. I call this the "success penalty." People were jazzed up about Obama, joined a group to do something about it, and because the group grew big, Facebook's internal rules squelched organizing them.

  • Facebook group "success penalty" - part 2. When Facebook called a "Political Summit" in Washington in October 2007, a bunch of us were ready to ask about this issue. So many that Facebook got wind of it and announced in the first minute of the meeting that they'd lift the 1,000-person rule. They later lifted it to 5,000, where it remains today.

    After President Obama's inauguration, David Meyer and Marisa McNee formed the "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom" group. Within days, thousands of people who got left in a tunnel during Obama's inauguration joined. They organized together -- debunking myths that were being reported in the media about their tunnel experience. They made local, national, and international news -- using blast-email messages to figure out who was available to talk to which media outlets.

    All of this got Facebook great publicity. It also got the Secret Service horrible publicity, so much that the Secret Service requested a meeting with the group's organizers to answer concerns. David and Marisa used blast email again to gather hundreds of questions for the Secret Service. They attended the meeting and actually got some concessions! They came back to their computer and found...5,012 people in their Facebook group. They couldn't email the group to report on their amazing success. Once again: the Facebook "success penalty" for effective organizing.

  • Facebook pages - the "viral barrier." Facebook tells political and issue groups to use "pages" instead of "groups" because pages have no 5,000-person limit on email. But unlike groups, where members can "invite" their friends, no such feature exists on pages. This is a huge "viral barrier," limiting the viral growth that is so essential to online organizing.

    In addition, it is my understanding that pages are less likely than groups to pop up in news feeds. I don't have access to the Facebook algorithms to back this up -- but it's something I've noticed and some very smart people I know have noticed. If true, this is also a "viral barrier."
Facebook's willingness to invite feedback and increase transparency is a golden opportunity to have an honest conversation about the struggles that online organizers (who love Facebook in general) have when trying to use Facebook to organize people.

It's also a golden opportunity for Facebook to tell their side of the story -- perhaps there are perfectly good explanations for certain barriers, or solutions in the works that we just don't know about yet.

This blog will help foster the conversation around Facebook organizing, and hopefully move the ball forward in a constructive way.

(Please sign up on the right to join the Internet user's rights movement and to stay in the loop. And please email if you'd like to write on this blog with your insights.)