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Facebook politics taste too

Networking is the lifeblood of all politics. So why are the Obama and other political applications for Facebook so terribly disappointing? At best, they function like bumper stickers for profile pages, and while my neighborhood’s lawn signs fill me with civic pride, I also know that sporting “I like Ike” buttons is a feeble way to participate in politics. Effective political engagement encompasses much more than the mere act of voting or supporting a candidate; it includes writing to officials, participating in hearings, and most of all, joining civic associations.

Given the critical role that associations play in our politics, why isn’t Facebook, the social networking tool par excellence, leading the way to Politics 2.0? For starters, the default profile field “political views” allows only 8 choices along the overbroad conservative/liberal spectrum, with “libertarian” and “apathetic” thrown in to mix it up a bit. By contrast, the “religious views” allows both selection from a picklist as well as custom text. (Personally, I would identity my politics as “contrarian”). Click on your choice and you’ll find “over 500 people” with the same label as well as options to narrow down by gender and relationship status. Clearly, this field was created to facilitate romantic rather than political get-togethers.

Tocqueville would suggest that Facebook groups hold a lot more promise for civic engagement than the “political views” label, but many of them turn out to be little more than vanity labels as well. The group Writing Papers Single Spaced First Makes My Double Spaced Result Climactic, which currently boasts 107,378 members, illustrates the fact that many Facebook groups’ reproductive strategy is to sport a colorful, ironic, evocative, or silly name that looks cool on your profile page. Thus, Facebook’s groups operate sort of like a self-directed — tags as temporary tattoos.

It’s not the banality of the groups that I’m critiquing here. Robert Putnam purposefully chose that most mundane of American pastimes – bowling – to illustrate that most any social activity can generate the social capital from which civic life emerges. Rather, it’s the fact that joining these groups usually requires no commitment and can be quite meaningless, not unlike belonging to the AARP (which at least requires $3.30 annual dues).

Why are associations so essential to American-style democracy? Grassroots organizers would say that they are the foundation of power, the means by which isolated individuals find others who share their interests and join with them to achieve common goals. So, Facebook groups and other Web-based networking provide a critical first step of bringing people together. At the very least, the Obama app allows you to see which of your friends have also added that app, presumably so you can meetup with them. Whether Facebook can be part of the next step – helping groups take action together to achieve their goals – remains to be seen. (It helps that the Facebook founders studied with grassroots guru Marshall Ganz at Harvard).

Already Facebook groups can hold discussions and put on events. (The aforementioned WPSSFMMDSRC group also boasts 108 conversation threads and 4,784 wall posts). Maybe some enterprising developer will make group membership even more meaningful by developing the killer app for organizers. Such an app would allow group members to hold each other accountable for doing things, whether recruiting new members, meeting, or putting on an action.

Perhaps such an app would be incompatible with the Facebook vibe; after all, who wants to use a social space for task management? But I have hopes that something of the sort would work. If democracy rests on the ability of social networks to nurture the kinds of groups that keep citizens engaged in their polity, I should hope that Web 2.0 augments rather than diminishes the power of those networks.

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