Sunday, November 29, 2009

Facebook is designed to keep you from contacting too many of your "friends" at once

I first noticed this problem when I was helping manage the Facebook group "Save the Rose Art Museum" in the early days following Brandeis University's announcement that it was closing the museum and pawning off its $300 million collection to pay its bills in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The day I learned of the crisis, I joined a burgeoning group made by Brandeis student Zev Rowlett, the largest of three that had sprung up within hours of the release of President Reinharz’s statement announcing the Boards unanimous decision. Working with fellow alum Jenna Weiss, the two of us quickly got many of our Facebook friends to join the group and tell their friends about the news. Word spreads like wildfire on the Internet, particularly when people are passionate about something like the Rose, and so our group membership swelled from 200 700 to 3000 members within a week or so.

As our movement to save the Rose grew, I sent out one short message each day with an update on recent developments in the situation, links to breaking news and commentaries on sites around the web, and information on who to contact to write letters and make phone calls to voice opposition to the University's decision. Members of the group often wrote me back with tips, insights and their own unique perspectives on the unfolding events, allowing me to better understand how my Brandeis community and the larger world of Art lovers could collaborate to save the Rose. Facebook gave me the capability to gather insights about how to effectively communicate and collaborate with the members of the group and exercise leadership in helping it grow. It was Facebook at its most democratic (with a small "d") best: providing simple online tools to allow the quick and successful formation of like-minded individuals into groups dedicated to advancing an important value in our society and enabling those persons to work together to achieve a common end.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the social movement. One day, as I hit "send" on an update to the group, a box popped up to scold me that I could not send a group message to more than 5000 members at a time. Facebook put a cap on me. To this day, the group has 7,656 members, and the only way I can communicate with them is by posting messages on the wall or discussion board of the group itself, an arguably inferior method of directly reaching into the Facebook mailbox that acts as a more direct conduit to a person’s attention.

For some reason, Facebook has decided to cut off an Administrator's ability to send out messages to more than 5000 people at a time. And that's just one of many examples of a method by which Facebook keeps you from contacting too many of your friends, too much of the time, by limiting the capabilities of its platform and preventing users from trying to take up too much of each other's attention.

Of course there must be some rationale for these kinds of rules. It is undoubtedly cheaper for Facebook to keep its servers from allowing users to connect with only a limited numbers of "Friends" at a time because maximum usage strains expensive hardware resources responsible for efficiently processing so much information every second of the day. It also helps avoids the MySpace problem of letting too many spammers reach you electronically too much of the time, particularly in your inbox.

But it also has its drawbacks. No longer could I send direct updates to my members about the quickly changing and quite dramatic events surrounding Brandeis' decision to shutter the Rose Art Museum. Facebook witnessed the power of its own software and decided I'd had enough. As you may have noticed, the limit on how many people a group Administrator can send a message to is just one of all sorts of Facebook limits: on how many friends you can tag in a note, send a message to at once, or invite to a group or game at a time. Forgot about being able to easily agglomerate your friends’ email addresses; you’ll have to open up their profile pages one at a time for that luxury.

It makes it deliberately more difficult for an organizer like me with a good faith reason to contact the “friends” he is trying to most immediately reach.

Facebook is risk-averse. It doesn’t trust users like you to take some action to limit your interactions with the groups or individuals you no longer wish to hear from, whether by contacting the individual sending the message directly to tell them why they no longer chose to receive those messages, leaving a group, or even defriending someone. Nor does it make it easy to manage our relationships with our contacts on Facebook in easier ways. Facebook doubts our ability to control our own experience on its site, and so denies us the tools to manage our experience with its software. And it is influenced by a bias that we'd rather hear less from our associates than more.

This might be the case, but it shouldn’t be, and today I discovered another reason why. Today Alan Khazei, the president of Be the Change, Inc. and co-founder of City Year, was endorsed by the Boston Globe in the Democratic Senate race to fill the great political and moral position once held by Ted Kennedy. I was excited to see the mainstream Globe’s endorsement of the scrappy public servant with a grassroots movement ("Khazei is Massachusetts' best chance to produce another great senator”) and buoyed by recent polls showing Alan commanding a larger share of the vote than ever before.

Despite these hopeful signs, the reality is also that Alan’s numbers are nearly half that of the Democratic front-runner, and because he’s taken no money from special interests and is only running for public office for the first time, he’s been less able to mount the kind of effective campaign to win the support of the greater universe of Democratic voters in Massachusetts outside the national service world who have simply never heard of him. In low-turnout primary elections, name recognition is a big boost, and for Alan, the battle has always been uphill. But the dynamic of a primary, with its endemic anemic voter turnout levels, also empowers small groups of dedicated people with the ability to turn out enough votes to sway the election.

It is with that goal – to inform people about the Globe’s endorsement, and introduce them to the man I hope they will vote for next Tuesday in the primary election in Massachusetts – that I published a blog post on my website earlier today with the news. Because my blog links to my Facebook account, the post was published on my wall within an hour.

After a friend re-posted the note on her own wall, I realized it could be very helpful to directly contact the my Facebook friends who are in networks in Massachusetts to politely tell them about Alan’s bid and ask for their support. I wouldn’t normally send such a large message to such a diverse group on Facebook, and good etiquette dictates I not send a message again unless in response to a direct contact, save for perhaps one additional message the day before the election reminding people to vote. In such a way, I would be able to effectively and politely use the power of Facebook to make the powerful kind of political impact that campaigns always dream about and work diligently to make through traditional and more costly methods like phone banking parties and door-to-door grassroots advocacy. Yet Facebook denies me that ability. It tells me that if I want to contact all these people at once, I’m going to have to work harder to get their attention.

It is primarily for that reason that I am posting this note today. While I’m writing this putting for the general interest all Facebook users share in how the platform operates, I am specifically tagging my “maximum” in this note because I believe these individuals may be Massachusetts residents with a common interest in filling the United States Senate with honorable men of integrity dedicated to public service and democracy. You'll find my original post here. If you are one of those people, I ask you only, and with great respect, to consider your civic duty as an American and make a principled decision about how to vote in nine days with the hope that my candidate will inspire you to cast your lot with him. And of course I’d be happy if you could forward the information about Alan along to any friends or family you know in the great state of Massachusetts, where I earned my bachelor’s degree.

I also hope that as Facebook grows, it will reconsider some if its limits on its members’ ability to organize and reach one another. Social networking is fast becoming one of the most democratic mediums of all time, but it will only improve if we, the users of its resources, demand it.

Alan Khazei for Senate -- Vote in Massachusetts next Tuesday!

It is exceedingly rare when a candidate runs for higher office who is so inspiring, so unconnected to special interests, and so truly driven by idealism and a passion for service, and even rarer when such a person has a chance of actually winning the nomination of a major political party. Yet in Massachusetts, this kind of opportunity is now represented by the candidacy of City Year founder Alan Khazei.

Alan is a person who has dedicated his life to serving our nation, bringing Americans together to improve our civic life, and being a positive agent for change in our society. Today, the Boston Globe has formally endorsed Alan as the right candidate to win the Democratic primary 9 days from now in Massachusetts.

I am no longer a Massachusetts resident, but having lived there for four years, and being a faithful Democrat, I can think of no person better suited to continue the legacy of Ted Kennedy than Alan Khazei -- a man who will serve as a truly inspirational leader in the United States Senate.

To all my friends in Massachusetts, I urge you to get out and vote for Alan Khazei next Tuesday. Primary elections have notoriously low turnouts, and the efforts of just a few thousand young people getting out and voting when they normally wouldn't could make the absolute difference in this campaign. Make it a priority to get out and elect Alan next Tuesday, and remind your family and friends in the area to do the same. Together we can assure this great American is elected to the Senate in 2010!

Learn more about Alan's campaign and how you can get involved in his grassroots effort!

Monday, November 09, 2009

Famous People

President Barack Obama

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Israeli President Shimon Peres

Senator Harry Reid, Majority Leader

Professor Goodwin Liu, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the American Constitution Society

Earth warming faster as catastrophe draws nearer

On global warming, we're playing with fire. Jeff Goodell published a powerful little article in Rolling Stone this week detailing the fact -- not surprising, in my opinion -- that global warming is happening faster then the world's leading scientists ever thought possible. Scientists once thought the Arctic would be completely melted by the end of the century; now, they believe the entire ice mass will be gone in the next couple of decades. The Arctic is dramatically smaller than it was even ten years ago because the ever expanding open waters melt ice faster, which warms the water quicker, assuring that the sum temperature of the waters are higher and less and less ice refreezes every winter. In short, positive feedback.

Here's the really scary part. Beneath the Arctic is a layer of permafrost "more than 1000 feet thick in some places" made of "partially decomposed trees, plants, woolly mammoths and other organic matter that lived in the region thousands of years ago." The terrifying reality is this:

As it thaws, all that rotting debirs send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Worse, the debris is a feast for microscopic bugs that transform it into methane, a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than CO2. All told, there are some 1 TRILLION metric tons of carbon buried in the Arctic - the equivalent of the oil, gas and coal reserves on the entire planet."

It gets worse.

"A similarly huge amount of methane is frozen in the floor of the shallow seas surrounding the Arctic. As the water warms, these bubbles of methane ice can bubble to the surface and release million of tons of methane -- more or less cooking the planet overnight."

Think of the enormity of that sum of methane - "equivalent to more than all of the oil, gas and coal reserves on the entire planet," doubled. Then recognize that methane is TWENTY times more potent than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. What we are talking about is no less a global meltdown that would raise sea levels by as much as nine feet by the end of the century. Such a rise in water levels would leave major cities like Miami, London, New York and Shanghai under water. It would also flood entire countries in low lying areas like Bangladesh, destroying the homes of millions of people.

The time to take action to stop global warming has come; in fact, it may have already passed.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

One year ago tonight: a night to remember

For all of you who, like me, are still waiting for the most sweeping change to come, and might be feeling a little down from all the negativity and political bs of Washington, remember that one year ago tonight, we made history when we elected Barack Obama President of the United States. This is a great country where great things can happen; let us never forget it!

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