Facebook and ‘Open Source Politics’

5 10 2007

Facebook continues to grow as a mini-web inside the World Wide Web, except that it is clean, easy to use, and free of the excesses associated with Internet anonymity. It is a great platform for marketing events and services on a local level and connecting with like-minded people across the world.

And with about 30 million members and growing, it is perfectly positioned for political activism. According to Wired magazine, activists looking to organize dozens of simultaneous rallies for the people of Myanmar turned to Facebook to spread the news.

Amateur activists and big-league political nonprofit groups find Facebook an easy way to connect citizens around the globe and help them push their collective concerns to the top of politicians’ agendas, a development that marks the beginnings of what might be called “open-source politics.”

“We’re working very closely with the people from Facebook,” says Mark Farmaner, Burma Campaign UK’s acting director. “They’re able to do things that we can’t because we’re a small organization with a small capacity — they’ve been able to mobilize people, and there’s been a division of labor.”

Open source politics, or politics 2.0, helped energize Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and spawned the “netroots” in the blogosphere and on social networking sites. Despite these successes, however, the concept has remained on the fringes of the political word, embraced primarily as an “alternative” approach to activisism partially because of a generation gap in relating to technology and partially because it has appealed mainly to progressive activists. 

But with Facebook’s rocket trajectory sweeping through virtually every segment of the population, the very concept of “mainstream” is evolving before our very eyes.  And organizing political rallies is just the beginning of Facebook activism. The New York Times reported recently on a Facebook-based direct action that saved a popular candy bar from being discontinued.

Users of Facebook, the social networking service, make up for any shortcomings in spelling, grammar and punctuation with their sheer numbers. After nearly 14,000 people joined “bring back Wispa” groups on Facebook, the food conglomerate Cadbury Schweppes announced on Aug. 17 that it would reintroduce the candy bar in October.

Keeping a candy bar in production may not sound like much but it illustrates that nearly anything can be achieved by organizing on Facebook, from the trivial to the crucially important. Indeed, a few weeks later the Times had another story of Facebook activism, this time involving an effort to ban a group accused of hate speech against Muslims. Within days, some 75,000 people joined the effort to block the group.

And that’s what I call open source politics.