Viral Coefficients And Political Freedom in Lebanon: Terrific Responses to Yesterday’s Facebook Story

Yesterday’s Facebook article generated some fantastic comments both here and on the techPresident version, with plenty of things to chew on for a while, and you guys are crazy if you miss out on them. So, let’s gather ’em up in one easy bundle and take ’em on home.

First, Mark Rovner from Sea Change Strategies weighed in here on e.politics in typically vivid style:

My two cents is that you can’t jump the shark until you have “arrived.” Fonzie’s epic jump (whence comes the expression) would not have mattered if no one ever watched Happy Days. I wonder if what we are witnessing instead with regard to Facebook is the popping of the “balloon of unrealistic expectations.”

This is not an original perception but I subscribe to the view that Facebook is more of a mirror of what (and who) is on people’s minds and in their hearts, rather than some kind of tool that can wielded like a sword. Yes we can goose a few extra people into joining our list by having [big airquotes here] “best practices,” but we can’t make something happen whose time has not come. Conversely, when its time comes, when an issue is ripe, you’re gonna look like a genius because the world will beat a path to your door and all you’ll have to is keep the lights on.

I love Facebook. I play scrabble. I hang out with my dive buddies. I get to “remember” friends’ and colleagues’ birthdays. And occasionally I join a group or take an action. Other than being old for a Facebook user, I am guessing I am more or less typical in that most users do not live, breathe and dream their cause. That’s the mirror part — the world, even the part that really cares — has a life and Facebook is helping many of them live it.

It’s way too early to give up on Facebook. Jump the shark? I don’t think it has even gotten in the water…

Thanks Colin for giving me an excuse to put off writing the proposal I have been procrastinating on all weekend! (-8

Next, Javaun Moradi looked at the Facebook’s changing demographics and the role of super-activists in Facebook advocacy:

Excellent post Colin. I think you make some terrific points. In addition, clutter and increased competition, the demographic shift has done a lot to temper advocacy in Facebook.

As you indicated, Facebook is an increasingly congested and competitive space. For some users, the novelty of adding more causes or fan applications is over, and even the first movers are suffering a lack of stickiness. Creating buzz is a lot easier that creating regular participation.

There has also been a big demographic shift since FB flung open its doors. The average user is older (about 30) and as a whole the environment is less fertile for advocacy. The first class of Facebook users graduated college and expanded their friend-base to include older individuals. Their online Facebook experience now mirrors their offline one — they’ve left the student-only groups and integrated with society at large.

As important as advocacy is to many Facebook users, that’s not the primary reason that most use the service. While the promise of Facebook is far deeper engagement, it requires even more nurturing than the 1-way channels of DM or email, and this is harder to do in a crowded, older (possibly more apathetic) arena.

Most of the work (and most of the donations) in any organization come from a very, very small percentage of the total body. If you can find those people on Facebook, they’re lieutenants that can help you build an active community.

As far as Facebook’s overall health, it’s taken some hits but I still believe it’s as strong as ever — at the very least there is no better alternative for mass adoption (OpenSocial may change that). The original users still complain about clutter, but many do enjoy using the tool to connect with older friends and relatives. In fact, many younger users are “pruning” their accounts to remove some of the casual student acquaintances they’ve added to focus on their more meaningful connections.

Then, Stanislas Magniant absolutely blew me away with this anecdote, which speaks to the power of technology to change lives:

Good post Colin. It so happens that I made a presentation a few days ago to a group of young political leaders (from across Europe mainly) about online politics. I sorta glossed over Facebook in my presentation for some of the reasons you mention: it’s a neat tool, but hasn’t proven effective at raising a dime or getting a vote.

However, during the Q&A session, one person helped me put things in perspective, in the most humbling manner. That person is a member of the Parliament in Lebanon.

Because of political threats on his life and that of his family, he’s been forced to live in highly secure locations, with bodyguards 24/7. And because he can no longer go out and meet with his constituents, he’s resorted to use Facebook to keep in touch with them, to exchange ideas, and to prepare for next year’s election. I don’t know if it’ll be efficient or not, but it was very humbling, to realize once again what it means, in countries where the rule of law and freedom of expression are jeopardized, to be able to get through to people and fight for democracy. By that point, I didn’t care how many applications he had installed or whether he had the biggest friends’ wheel. I was just he was able to communicate with the outside world, and if Facebook is a better spot than MySpace in Lebanon to reach out to young voters talk about democracy, and perhaps fight radicals, so be it.

Finally, over at techPresident, Ben Rattray got seriously geeky on the subject of viral spread:

Great points. One thing I would elaborate upon is that one of the big problems with Facebook in general (and political apps in particular) is that even if people like political apps, it’s impossible for them to get distribution without having a viral coefficient of at least 1 (meaning each new user who joins recruits an average of at least 1 additional user).

This is a significant structural impediment that prevents quality applications that are not specifically structured for viral distribution from reaching any real audience. I’ve actually just written extended commentary about this that Andrew Chen posted on his blog here.

I didn’t write it specifically about political apps (rather, about Facebook’s structural bias against “useful” apps in general), but it applies to them as well.

Thank you guys so much — nothing is more gratifying for a writer than seeing something he created spark other people to top it.


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Colin Delany
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