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.)


FernReiss said...

Great idea! I've got another one: Remove the barrier that prohibits you from messaging more than *20* friends at a time. I've got over 1000 friends; messaging them all in 20 member batches is a gigantic barrier to communication. While they're at it, remove the limit on friends, too; if I have more than 5000 friends, why would Facebook want me to start sending them over to another social media network to play?

/Fern Reiss
moderator, Facebook Writing and Publishing,

charles said...

Hey Adam,
This - - seemed like an obvious next step.

Good luck with this! Thanks for taking initiative.

Phillip Perry said...

Adam, thanks for starting this movement. In the same vein above, the "lists" feature to categorize your friends is worthless if you can't message more than 20 people at a time. It would also be nice to be able to tag lists in notes, instead of having to tag individual friends.

And I would really, really love it if they added the invite tool to fan pages. That would be huge!

Pablo Manriquez said...

Well done. Good movement. Charles, you might want to upload a picture to the FB group to make the group more postable on FB walls. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

regarding the comment above about messaging more than 20 friends at a time - those types of messages on Facebook are annoying, since you cannot opt out of them and it becomes a discussion thread in your inbox where you get a notification each time - even people you have blocked can message you that way. it's entirely intrusive. faceobok is not email. don't multi-recipient message people.

Baratunde Thurston said...

pages are getting upgraded to be more viral

AdamGreen said... is absolutely a part of Facebook.

You identify a great point though. So, in the spirit of "removing barriers to organizing" wouldn't a solution be that you can group-message in a BCC you can send a message out to lots of people at a time?

Prokofy said...

I believe there should be an Internet Users' Rights movement, but it is one that should accommodate diversity of views
and not merely be the latest leftoid socialist mass-movement obsessed shtick that we've seen so many times before, and which never works to attract any real depth of participation, even if social media tools can amplify it 10 times.

Facebook doesn't deserve any credit for caving to a user rebellion; what they've done now is bought people like you
off by making it seem as if they are installing Democracy 2.0 but it's a fraud up and down -- having to decide within 30 days, using documents completely drafted by the company, in ridiculously large groups whose moderators are
appointed by the company, not allowed to start any threads than what they've put up, and having to make this entire fake mess something that is essentially only advisory (Zuckerberg has left himself loopholes) and then subject to a binding motion only if 30 percent vote -- which may well be an impossibility.

The principles do not look great. Look again. Only authoritarian governments and the Islamic Conference at the UN try to impose "duties" and "responsibilities" in international treaties. The democracies of the world make sure
treaties only refer to rights to which states are obligated. Mixing up what amounts to a criminal code into a rights document disastrously erodes these rights. Any ACLU lawyer looking at this document could tell you this. It's
a fraud -- and your notion that all those principles and this methodology and the company picking their pets and Micah
getting to chat on them all on the phone is a democracy is completely *whack*. You should protest all that too and demand changes there, too.

If this is a union struggle, I don't want it to be Workers' World goofiness but something sane. You're accommodating to essentially unacceptable corporate rules that serve only the interests of the platform providers and take away
basic First Amendment rights from users (what is "bullying"? what if it turns out it means disagreeing with Zuckerberg or you?)

On your notions about the penalties, I think you really undermine the cause by implying that Facebook, as controlling
as it is, has introduced a group organizing "success penalty". There is nothing of the kind stated. They do have a problem with spam but we need to demand answers about it. I find this completely untenable. I find that when my teenagers get together a dozen of their pals on Facebook and have a round-robin about where they are going iceskating, some Facebook admin breaks in and
tells them they can't mass message or they will face expulsion. It's insane. This is not just something about POLITICAL organizing. It's ANY organizing. Don't pretend it's "censorship" when it's administrative control for reasons that aren't transparent. We
think there should be other ways to deal spam through user abuse reports etc.

This idea that your little pals playing cops and robbers with the Secret Service are somehow being politically punished
is also childish. 5012 is 5012 when you made a 5000 rule which applies to any group, even people who like Lil Wayne. What you need to do is demand higher limits, but get transparency on the reasons why spam can't be fought differently or whether in fact it's just a scaling problem on the servers (I suspect the latter). There are a hell of a lot of rows and tables in databases that have to manage groups and their interactive conversations. Again, if you want to be credible about "viral barriers" find out if this is a technical/scaling or actual political problem.

Maybe Zuckerberg just wants to do all the organizing himself. He often talks about his sixth largest country of the world of 175 people (that's why half a population ago, I formed the group "We Are Not 69 Million of Anything".)

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Andrew Smith said...

today facebook is becomming popular. as facebook goes high it also goes with the crimes, scaming and phishing. well this cant be helped.

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