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.


Philadelphia fence said...

That's interesting to heaer. There is another way...set up two faceBook groups and stop growing them each at 4000, so you'll never accidentally push over the 5000 limit. Then you just have two messages to send out each day.

Unknown said...

This is actually an easing of their restrictions -- it used to be a 2,000 person cap.

The reason for this limitation is pretty clear: a lot of people join a lot of groups they don't really care that much about and there's very little reason to believe that anybody has a personal message to send to 5,000 of their closest friends. Facebook's job, they'd argue, is not to allow you ways to organize, but to make sure that people stay on Facebook so they can maintain their ad revenue. Facebook -- even in our groups -- is not a public entity, even though its content is perhaps our most public thoughts. So, Facebook has an incentive to cut down on spam... and while you may think that the Rose or any other issue is important, to many it's just more Facebook spam. Hence, cap.

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