New Facebook Groups and organizing

The launch of Facebook’s new Groups feature last week was largely overshadowed by this week’s Bing/Facebook social search announcement and the success of Facebook: The Movie (a.k.a. The Social Network).  But in online organizing circles, the new feature presents some questions about the future of online organizing – namely how

The answer to those questions depend on who is asking them.

The Basics of Groups

Facebook Groups is essentially the love child of a glorified list serv and a wiki, with similar functions as Google groups.  Group members can send blast messages to the rest of the group, chat, and share content.  What makes Groups a bit more interesting than a list serv is that a user creates a group, he or she can add other users without their permission.  Adding someone to a group is as easy as tagging them in a photograph.  If you’re a Facebook user, you can be added to a group without actively joining (barring some privacy setting adjustments, of course).

Groups vs. Pages

Facebook’s pages are easy to set up, and getting a user to join a fan page is as easy as having them click a “like” button.  That’s why many campaigns, causes, organizations, and companies use these pages – aside from operating like a website within Facebook, it’s relatively easy to rack up big numbers of followers if you have some money to spend on Facebook’s cost-effective advertising.  Communication with followers is somewhat passive – your posts wind up in their news feed, but you can’t send mass messages – so followers are not always engaged.

Groups are even easier to build than Pages, thanks to the aforementioned tag-style recruitment method.  Group members can be engaged more actively that page followers, but a group administrator has less  control over the direction of the discussions that take place among group members.  This is fine if you are using Facebook Groups for discussions among members of a task force or working group, but gets problematic if you want to use it for a political or issue campaign that relies heavily on message discipline.  If you’re part of a small group of activists, though – such as a local Tea Party group – Groups as it currently exists can be very helpful.  In many ways, Groups is built for the citizen activist.

Groups and the API

“As it currently exists,” though, may be the operative phrase thanks to the recruitment-as-tagging method mentioned above and another, potentially quite powerful facet of Groups: the open API that lets applications access, communicate, and essentially mine information from Groups:

The API currently enables developers to pull a Group’s basic info including name, description, owner, last updated time, and privacy setting; access the Group’s picture, view existing posts; see all members; and post to the Group… The API will allow developers to build applications over the feature, such as Group feed readers, Group recommendation engines, and more.

What this means is that smart online organizers will use Groups as a recruiting tool, reaching out to these small, self-organized communities to build “like” counts on pages or to join other groups, depending on their specific goals.

(Of course, with all the controversy Facebook and other online networks have suffered due to privacy loopholes, this may not last long.)

The Real Nature of Facebook Politics

Either way, Groups illustrates something very important about Facebook organizing: Recruiting for volume is less and less important than recruiting large numbers of the right kind of connections, either as group members or page followers.  Having 100,000 followers or 1,000 members is, ultimately, no big deal – all it takes is money for ads or the chutzpah to tag all your friends (and some of their friends, perhaps).  The real question is what those followers and members do to help your ultimate goal – whether that goal is votes in an election or a phone call to elected representatives.

“Likes” are cheap, but action is valuable.

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