Stork Fountain Experiment #1: Why Facebook groups are not democratic tools

In the early stages of a band, a grass-root movement or any kind of loose organisation, a web presence is often used as a means of constituting the organisation; “we are represented online – therefore we are”.

If you’re a band – a MySpace page with some music added, constitutes your band and links it to a specific name, a musical style and some specific people. If you’re a looser organisation, such as grass-roots movement or e.g.  a student organisation – it is very likely that you will consider using a Facebook group as your online constitution (That someone after a meeting will suggest “hey – I’ll go home and create a Facebook group”). This is why I suggest that you don’t always do that:

protest

If your organisation is driven by a few people, who just need to get in touch with the rest (who are on Facebook anyway), a Facebook group could do the job. It is just an elaborated mailing-list which will allow you to post to people’s inboxes with simple text mail and a link.

But if you are cause based and want to create a larger popular movement and/or to support a more complex power- and information structure, the tools in a Facebook group do not support the horizontal communication, which is needed. Facebook groups have a discussion tool, but it is technically outdated. For example, you need to visit the individual threads in the forum, to find out if something that interests you has occurred. You can post  both text and links but the newest postings are located last?!

But not only the discussion tools are problematic and will definitely slow down your process. The other tools, such as wall, photo and video albums, are clumsy and will involve a lot of scrolling and clicking, to keep up to date with any debate.

How do people communicate in cause based Facebook groups?

In the spring of 2009, as a part of a psychological experiment, I created a Facebook protest group that went from 125 to 27.500 members in two weeks. The cause of the group was totally fictitious as the group  protested against the demolition of a famous danish fountain – the Stork Fountain (Storkepringvandet). After the experiment, I started investigating the causes of growth and the communication that went on. I created a survey, which 729 people responded to and furthermore included qualitative data from the group itself.

Several people were on to the experimental nature of the group (which was not difficult, since it was revealed by me in the discussion forum – and on this blog) and they felt a healthy need to warn the members of the group that it was fake. This actually gave me a great dynamics for testing the efficiency of the horizontal communication-tools. If it worked, the group should stop growning or actually end up only consisting of people who wanted to follow the experiment.

The result was depressing: it was very difficult for these people to communicate to others that the group was “not real”. This was mainly because people didn’t use the group for information, but as a “badge”, to communicate their support for the cause to themselves and others. Lots of people reported that they read the group description, and joined. Some of them shared the group to friends or wrote a message on the wall, but very little of the wall posts were containing direct messages or questions directed at other people (2,7%). In stead of discussion, the wall contained almost the same 5-6 messages, repeated over and over again. Some were outraged, some asked if the birds on the fountain were really storks, others complained about related cases and then there were the people who tried to “blow the whistle”.  And these  people who warned about the experimental nature of the group, could see their wall posts being quickly washed down by new ones – as the group grew by 2-3 new members each minute!

The only one who had real communication power in the group was me – the creator. Only I could influence the context of the group, delete messages (which I very rarely did), change pictures and reveal “thruths”. The fact that I actually wrote in the group description that more info was available in the forum, made it even more disturbing that almost 75% of the group embers, later reported that they thought that the Stork Fountain might be facing demolition.

My conclusion is that Facebook-groups are brilliantly suited for promoting (or branding) a single cause which people will join if it fits within their values and online identity.  And if you don’t reach 5000 members, it is even possible to contact your supporters directly. But if you try to create any kind of democratic movement which needs horizontal communication an decision power, a Facebook-group is a BAD tool!

A thought: What if the group had been against the fact that 80% of immigrant men hit their women every week? As far as I know, that would have been a totally fictitious group – but how would you stop it from spreading? Facebook groups are mainly used as online social accessories by regular users and are joined by a simple and cheap click. But once joined, the group can spread – and even if the group is closed down, the meme of the group is still stored in many people’s memories, where it can be used to mobilize you to various causes.

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2 thoughts on “Stork Fountain Experiment #1: Why Facebook groups are not democratic tools

  1. Overall, I can agree with you. Thanks for surveying (and thanks a lot for letting me use your data :-) )

    My point is that there is a broad misconception of the ideal way of using Facebook to promote concepts/products: People tend to use the “group” application instead of using the “page” application/feature, which Facebook has specially designed to the “badge” purposes, as you call them.
    I have written a short blog entry (in Danish) at http://kezze.dk/politikere-facebook/ .

  2. Pingback: Slacktivism: Technology Is Only as Good as the People Who Use It |

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