Facebook: civic strengths and weaknesses

Facebook is an “egocentric network.” That’s not a disparaging remark; its egocentrism is a source of its strength. As a Facebook user, you maintain and refine your own profile and explore a network of people who have one thing in common–they are all connected to you. Because we are interested in ourselves and our relationships, participation in an egocentric network is appealing. Millions of people have been motivated to join and to invest time enriching Facebook’s database with text, images, and video (material that benefits others as well as themselves).

To be sure, you can move away from your own page by examining friends’ profiles and their lists of friends; but as you move out into the network, you have access to progressively less information. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature. Facebook protects strangers’ privacy and keeps our focus where our main interests are–close to home.

Facebook does have advantages for doing civic work (discussing issues, organizing events, collaborating to address problems). Nowadays, it is definitely smart to use Facebook to communicate and organize. But it also has limitations, which explain the failure of Facebook’s “Causes” application to raise much money and the decision of the Obama campaign to move off Facebook to MyBarackObama.com.

Because Facebook is an egocentric network, the user cannot see the network from a community or social perspective. Our only vantage point is our own Facebook page, not any place outside the network from which we could see the whole thing. That means that:

    1. We cannot search the network for people who might be interested in our cause, issue, community, or event. (We can search the names of pages, but we can’t do powerful searches that would let us see, for instance, who is several degrees removed from an issue or cause.)

    2. We cannot determine who is central to a network around a place or a cause, so we cannot tell who is most important to persuade or mobilize.

    3. We cannot find paths from ourselves to someone else, unless the target directly accepts our “friend” requests.

    4. We cannot identify strengths or gaps in the network that would be useful to know for diagnostic or planning purposes.

    5. We cannot learn about networks that have formed to deal with issues or communities, unless we have “friend” relationships with members of these networks.

Our emerging network map of the Boston area is the opposite–it’s “community-centered” rather than egocentric. This image shows the part of the existing map that covers Somerville, MA:

As this map grows and we add tools for search and analysis, it will become increasingly powerful for community organizing. But its weakness is the mirror of Facebook’s strength. We need a lot of people to contribute content, not just once, but over time to keep the map current. Because the network is not egocentric, it’s unlikely that people would be motivated to add and update information–even once we make it completely open and “wiki-style.”

That’s why our main goal is to integrate the community-centered map with egocentric networks such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Our current plan for doing that is here. In essence, we want people to be able to stay where they are (on their egocentric networks) but benefit from the data in the community map without a lot of hassle.