Fallacious Celebrations of Facebook Fans

Publishing “top 10″ lists is unfortunately a staple of modern journalism. But alas, writers must drive readers’ eyeballs, even when discussing serious topics like the government. And so we find a new list that mixes Web 2.0 with the government: “Top 10 agencies with the most Facebook fans.” For the record, this list is topped by the White House with 327,592 fans, followed by the Marine Corps, Army, CDC, State Department, NASA, NASA JPL, Library of Congress, Air Force, and Environmental Protection Agency. Congratulations to all these hard-working agencies.

But what exactly are we celebrating here? The fact that government agencies are embracing new technologies that the citizens they serve actually use? That’s nice I suppose, but everyone from Papa John’s Pizza to America’s Next Top Model (200,000 more fans than the White House, cough) to someone I met once at a party during Internet Week has a Facebook “Fan Page” now, so surely we are not celebrating the mere presence of them. In fact, when everyone in my social circle’s social circle asks me to become a fan of their long-standing charity, their favorite television program, or their single-person consulting firm, everything becomes a blur of meaningless, cheap invitations that become remarkably easy to decline. There is no value in simply having a fan page anymore. There may in fact be street cred in not feeling like you need one.

Are we applauding the government’s fan numbers? The article leads with, “The White House currently has more fans than the Washington Redskins.” The most powerful global seat of power in perhaps the most recognizable office building in the world has more fans than the local football team? Earth-shattering. Let’s consider how popular the White House is. Facebook now has 300 million users; thus, approximately one out of every 1000 Facebook users is a “fan” of the White House. The other 999/1000 are not. And since many Facebook users live outside the U.S., one must assume that many White House fans do as well. Should every U.S. citizen using Facebook be a fan of the White House? Is that the goal? What’s the marginal value of an additional 10,000 fans? Who knows.

Still, the White House shouldn’t feel too bad about those stats. Rounding out the top 10, the EPA has convinced one of every 100,000 Facebook users to become their fans. Bravo. Let’s keep this in perspective. Soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo has two fan pages that total four million fans. Julia Allison, who isn’t even a real celebrity, has over 15,000 fans – if these numbers are in any way meaningful she’s roughly as popular as the State Department, the agency heading up U.S. foreign policy. These numbers seem even worse when one considers that there are hundreds of U.S. Federal Government departments and agencies, many of which haven’t a presence on Facebook or anything similar.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Let’s assume for a minute that these agencies are genuinely touching microniches and that the fans, whatever their numbers, are indeed fanatical about these agencies. What is the government doing with that raving fan base? Not much. Facebook fan pages from the Army and CDC and State Department primarily re-post their own news from their own websites. I didn’t see any original writing. I didn’t even see aggregation of information about, say, foreign policy from other sources. I certainly didn’t see any innovative contests from the Marine Corps, or crowdsourcing from NASA. And while there are fan comments posted on the pages, it’s not obvious at all what is being done with that feedback, if anything. Make fun of Tyra Banks all you want, but her show’s fan page has 286 discussion topics, hundreds of photos, headshots, names, and bios of people involved in the show, and listings of upcoming events. They’re so organized at America’s Next Top Model that we might consider asking their staff to inform people about the resurgent H1N1 flu virus.

If you think I’m joking about that, you probably have no business working with social media for the government.

The larger issue here is that the connection of any of these Facebook fan pages to agency goals and strategy is murky at best. As someone who spends a bit of time thinking about “Government 2.0,” it’s difficult to decipher how this is helping the government. True, the pages are somewhat informative, and to some degree they reach a citizen audience where they are. But it’s not novel and it’s not social and it’s not engaging. The execution is flawed, the tactics are questionable, the strategy is vague, and the goals are unclear. And all the government pages in the top 10 list effectively look the same. Monkey-see, monkey-do.

My personal Facebook page has about 2,000 connections, but this by itself is nothing to celebrate. The meaningful question is not about who has more fans, but about who can authentically and transparently – and usefully – interact with citizens to provide social and intellectual value and become the pulse of their conversations. Here are some questions I have for governments and agencies running Facebook fan pages: What are the names of the people running the pages? What are their titles? What city is their office in? Where do they blog? Which events are they attending this year? (Can I meet them there?) How are you going to get your fans engaged in your mission? How can I tell you my stories about military service, or foreign travel, or amateur astronomy? Would those stories be helpful to you? How are you using social media like Facebook to get citizens involved in their government?

These are questions that departments and agencies, and private companies for that matter, should be asking themselves before they deploy official new media platforms like a Facebook fan page. The answers to these questions and others should be visible on day one. When the first White House memo of the new administration outlined the principles of a transparent, participatory, and collaborative government, this should have been obvious. It appears not to be so.

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  • http://ariwriter.com Ari Herzog

    Cheers. I agree.

    When will folks realize it’s not about numbers and quantity, but content, conversation, and quality?

    I can opt-in and be a fan of a million Facebook pages and opt-in and follow a million Twitter accounts. I can then stop using both accounts tomorrow; but the counter on all of those pages and feeds will still show me a fan.

    That’s why, simplified, numbers are meaningless.

  • Brock Webb

    I am surprised by an organization such as NASA where people travel to watch the space shuttle, buy NASA hats and other gear, with a tweeting astronaut isn’t higher up on the list. But isn’t that the case with most fan pages, a few will have a lot and most will have some to little to none?

    What concerns me more was an article I read a while back on ‘why blogs fail’ … one of the primary reasons that news and information provided was nothing more than the same information you could get from traditional sources.

    Its nice to see the progress, but to use new media as another ‘traditional’ media outlet without the value-add isn’t making the ‘leap forward’ or the ‘paradigm shift’ etc. that is really necessary to be successful within the context of this environment. My guess is the ‘rules’ on public release of information have created this artificial cage that may keep success from getting out.

  • http://twitter.com/levyj413 Jeffrey Levy

    Mark, your post is more or less on target, but you’re also ignoring something important: thousands of people are saying in various places “we appreciate your talking to us where we are and we want to hear what you have to say.”

    Pop stars are in the business of engaging fans. Gov’t agencies haven’t traditionally been in the same way. It takes thought and time to get the interaction right. But we’re learning by doing, rather than waiting for full enlightenment to even try.

    Meanwhile, it’s important to recognize that sometimes just being there is a good start. EPA’s Twitter account is almost entirely fed by RSS. Yet we keep picking up new followers, so at least those folks seem to feel there’s value even in that low level of use.

    Same goes for our Facebook fans.

    Simply put, the questions you listed are useful, and will help us do better. But don’t dismiss what’s happened so far.

  • http://www.twitter.com/MeghanKathleen Meghan McCormick

    Hi Mark,

    I engage in Army social media on the contract side, as a part of the Army’s contracted Web team. I created the Army’s Facebook page and share responsibility updating it.

    While a lot of the posts include repackaged content, my personal opinion of the page is that the value is found beyond just the posted content. Everyday, Soldiers, family members, military spouses and future Soldiers gather here and build community. I’ve see relationships grow between fans, advice and counsel be given, stories shared, etc. Check out some of the discussion boards and wall posts by fans.
    htpp://www.facebook.com/usarmy

    You bring up some great points about the next steps of engagement and I hope that government agencies can walk down those paths soon. We all know that “2.0” technologies have taken some time to find their place in Washington, but I trust agencies are working hard to adapt.

  • http://markdrapeau.com Mark Drapeau

    Jeffrey: Appreciate your comments. I know EPA is doing a variety of things in a variety of places, but here I was just talking about Facebook fan pages. I don’t see a lot of “talking to citizens” on that page; I see postings of epa.gov blogs and similar material. Now, that’s not all bad, but I also don’t think it’s very participatory and collaborative. As for “just being there” as a good start, fine. If an agency feels they should have a Facebook page, okay, make one. But on what specific date does merely having a presence become insufficient? Mark

  • http://www.genshift.com Andrew Krzmarzick

    Hi Mark,

    You’re right. It’s not about the numbers. It’s about:

    - setting up camp where citizens conduct their daily lives on the Web
    – informing the public about important initiatives
    – eliciting feedback on key questions that face an agency
    – being creative in fostering dialogue between government and citizens.

    Nobody is doing that better on Facebook, in my opinion, then the UK’s Training and Development Agency through http://Facebook.com/Teach. They are using Facebook as a platform that enables open, transparent interaction between current and prospective teachers.

    THAT is how Facebook – and other social media tools – should be used for the common good.

    Thanks again for another insightful post.

    - Andy (@krazykriz)

  • http://mdc.mo.gov Kevin Lanahan

    “But on what specific date does merely having a presence become insufficient?”

    When the organization fails to respond to fan interaction on FB.

    At MO Dept of Conservation, we generally just post updates from our feeds. However, we have over 1,900 fans, and have only recently begun promoting this on our website.

    Our goal is to get our content where people are, and they are on FB right now.

    Since it’s Facebook, however, the fans do start discussions and do ask questions, and we have had to mobilize a small team to interact with people.

    I would say that our goal is not to have an immersive FB experience for users. We just want to have a beachhead where we can interact. Until FB gets 508-compliant, we really aren’t comfortable using FB for more than an alternative distribution method and steering people back to our main pages.

  • http://www.america.gov/publications/article-alert.html Michael Jay Friedman

    Given Mark’s sentence about the lack of aggregation tools on Department of State web properties, I thought to mention in passing that the Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs does operate an aggregation page, intended for foreign audiences. Called Article Alert, it digests interesting articles from different periodicals, blogs, and other sources available on the Web. You can find it at http://www.america.gov/publications/article-alert.html. The twitter feed @americagovalert tracks the page.

    Michael Jay Friedman (DISCLOSURE: I work for the Department but today am just an interested reader.)

  • http://markdrapeau.com Mark Drapeau

    Thanks Michael. I think that your Bureau does great stuff. But to be fair (to me), I was only writing about Facebook fan pages. You are talking about something completely extraneous to that.

  • George Clack

    Mark, You should check out the eJournal USA Facebook page produced by the the State Department’s Bureau of Information Programs.

    http://tinyurl.com/nxev2p

    Started in April 2009, it has 61,143 fans (not sure why it did not make Fed Computer Week’s top 10). It’s an aggregator site – the first four items tonight are from YouTube and NPR. Aggregation of foreign policy news is one of the first things we discovered that the Facebook audience wanted from us when we started up. So while this site has a few links to the IIP Bureau’s America.gov site, it seems to be doing pretty much what you berate USG sites for not doing. George Clack