An experiment with unintended results

The CBC wrapped up their Facebook initiative on Canada Day. The Great Canadian Wish certainly provided some unintended consequences, yet it teaches us some truths about social media and its participants.

As an aside, the next time an NDPer boasts that Tommy Douglas is The Greatest Canadian based on the shaky authority of a CBC populist initiative, show them this:

Poor CBC! The only wish that would have made them cringe harder would have been if “Privatize the CBC” had beaten out the rest.

The fate of the CBC isn’t as much of a divisive issue as that of abortion to be sure and that’s where we draw our first conclusion on why the public broadcaster got the results that it did.

Polarizing issues will drive people to mobilize. Frankly, it’s been an effective tool used by the Liberals during the latest rounds of electoral combat. Going nuclear on the Conservative Party meant referencing abortion during the last desperate days of the writ period.

Secondly, anti-abortion activists mobilized quickly and early. They also had the advantage of not representing the status quo; if abortions were illegal, you can bet that the pro-choice wish would have had more traction as it would have indicated a desire for change. The very concept of change is more mobilizing because it is natural to take the status quo for granted. Indeed, the issue of abortion is a real and emotional one for people on both sides of the debate.

CBC also touched on a particular rationale for the presence of the the highly contentious issue: forum. Since the topic of abortion has been one that hasn’t been polled or discussed in any real public sense for years (CBC illustrates this in its report above using Environics as an example), advocates against the practice felt that the Facebook group represented a “back-door” of sorts to bring it front-row-centre on a highly visible stage, the CBC. Are more Canadians on Facebook pro-life rather than pro-choice?

Not necessarily.

Since reproductive choice / access to abortion is the norm in this country, the pro-choice advocates have had the advantage (and in this contest, the disadvantage) of arguing from a comfortable, mainstream position. The most significant motivating factor for pro-choice advocates only came into action when it became apparent that their pro-life foes might actually pull off an upset. The pro-lifers were primarily motivated by the issue, while the pro-choicers were too comforted and slowed by the mainstream acceptance of their position, and were only motivated when that position came under threat. Where the pro-lifers sought to act on the issue, the pro-choicers found their strength in reacting. Since acting comes before reacting, acting had a head-start.

There are parallels, of course, to real life politicking that we can draw from the Facebook/CBC wish initiative. As, I’ve mentioned, emotional issues mobilize support and have been used by parties to get out the vote. The Liberal line was “we may have had some ethics problems in Quebec, but have you heard what the Conservatives want to do to your rights?” Since abortion isn’t actually an issue on the Conservative radar, Conservatives have difficulty appealing to emotion. “Rights” are compelling issues and the Conservatives would be wise to determine where they can successfully leverage their strengths in that domain (Rights for Afghani women and children is compelling). Status quo versus change is also a significant factor as the desire for latter can be a stronger motivator than protecting the former (for Conservatives and Canadians, economic freedom is a compelling right, however, it is the relative status quo). People take the status quo for granted and may only become motivated when a real threat is perceived. Often, these issues may come too late during an election for the reacting party.

Certainly, the CBC experiment had some unintended consequences (I’m sure that they’re thanking their lucky stars that they didn’t commit to making this an 8-part mini-series starring George Strombolopolous), however, I feel that it highlighted some very interesting characteristics of human nature, politics, and evolving social media networks. I wonder if other experiments that test human nature can be conceived and then realized on Facebook?

As an addendum, as a Conservative partisan I was somewhat worried that the prominence of abortion as an issue would have instigated a renewed negative focus on the Conservative Party regarding the topic. Kudos to the CBC for including the clip of Stephen Harper in this report on the CBC/Facebook wish:

UPDATE: Looks like the comments section has erupted into a pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. Consider that the post is actually about human behaviour as it relates to the motivating factors on social networks as a potential snapshot of the real-life world of political mobilization.

Ministerial staffers back on Facebook

I’ve learned that in a reversal of internal government policy this past week, Conservative ministerial staffers are once again permitted to keep a Facebook profile on the popular social networking website.

Indeed, Facebook has become the latest killer online app and for some, it has replaced email for messaging friends and scheduling events and parties.

Earlier, I opined that the ‘corporate’ Facebook ban implemented by the Conservatives on their political staff was a shrewd move made to prevent a hungry media and opposition from exploiting personal material not intended for “front-page” exposure. A complete ban may have been harsh, yet the careless use of the site would have also been less than ideal. Thus, in policy refinement and compromise, the government has found a new optimum that works for everyone.

I’ve learned that each department has been tasked with implementing a policy on the use of Facebook for their staff, particularly concerning which privacy settings ought to be adjusted to both allow employees the use of the popular social networking tool and to allow a government known for its tight messaging to keep any loose ends from sticking out. The policy might be considered analogous to any other employee code of conduct, but this one is specialized for a website.

Ministerial facebookers will be pleased by the move and their employers will remain conscious of how to maintain the ideal balance.

Blogging Tories launches Facebook applications

Blogging Tories was the original political blogroll/aggregator in Canada and today it continues to break new ground.

As many readers already know, the Facebook phenomenon is getting blanket coverage in the media and among bloggers and it is the largest online social network assembled in the history of the world (that may sound like hyperbole… but it’s true). People have reconnected with old buddies from high school, are announcing social get-togethers across their network of Facebook friends and are associating and assembling among shared groups with common interests.

The last time I checked, Facebook had over 9 million users and has recently edged out eBay for daily page-views. (I just re-checked. Facebook has 20 million users)

So, what does this mean for the future of the Internet? I’m not sure, but like Blogging Tories, Facebook is inherently community-based and it would be useful to bridge both media. That’s why when Facebook opened up it’s web architecture to developers and other nerds, I got going trying to figure it out so that Blogging Tories could leverage the ‘other Internet’ that is Facebook.

I’ve developed two Facebook applications. The first application displays the most recent five Blogging Tories postings from the BT aggregator. Now you can add the most recent news and gossip from the Blogging Tories bloggers into your Facebook profile page. There are also useful links into other facets of the BT community available from the application.

The other Facebook application is a “I support Stephen Harper” image switcher. A set of images is contained within the application and the installer of the application can switch to a favourite image and fix it in place for visitors to their profile. Simple yet functional!

Facebook freeze

I was wondering when this would finally happen…

Facebook, perhaps the most popular social networking site in the world where one can build a network among friends, acquaintances and professionals is to no longer be used by Conservative ministerial exempt staff.

Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long. Facebook pages are like semi-private blogs that can include off-colour comments by colleagues, photos from last night’s bender and can even display deeply personal details such as one’s relationship status and sexual preference. Blogs understandably represented a communications challenge amongst a team that prides itself on tight messaging. Facebook not only represents this same challenge, but also has the potential for being a rich back-channel for opposition researchers, among others.

In fact, a reporter friend once remarked to me that Facebook was a ‘goldmine’ of information. With a few clicks, an industrious Globe and Mail scribe could find out that the press secretary to a Minister was at a Cinco de Mayo party this month, has interests that include “Ayn Rand, fast boats, ATVing and walks on the beach” and has a Guns ‘N Roses tattoo from earlier, less sophisticated
times.

David Akin, another reporter who is actively involved in the Facebook community, earlier wrote about the social networking phenomenon and then unknowingly highlighted what is likely the reasoning behind this recent decision:

“One of the reasons I wanted to be Harper’s FF [Facebook friend] was so that I could see who Harper’s other FFs were. I’m a nosy parker by profession and it’s my job to find out what his supporters and colleagues in the Conservative party are thinking about. So here was a good chance to invite myself to a virtual party where most (I suspect) are people who either are or would like to be Harper’s real offline friend. Now, the flipside of this is that all of these people at this virtual party of Harper’s friends can also see that I, too, have listed myself as Harper’s “Friend”. So, here I am, a journalist who is paid to provide independent, non-aligned and occasionaly sceptical reports on the Prime Minister and yet, here I am, on a list of his “Friends”.”

The “friend” network of a Conservative ministerial exempt staffer may include Conservatives, high school friends, Liberals, PMO staff and Mark Holland (just for kicks — and to spy on him too to see if he is as ill-timed with the keyboard as he is with what he says in public — he is). And therein lies the biggest problem for a professional network that trades on gossip, leaks and juicy details: while you’re checking them out, you’re open to the same. “Bozo eruptions” are not limited to a backbench MP freelancing opinion about social issues to a small- town newspaper reporter; Facebook, in its ease of use, and its socially reciprocating nature, lowers the threshold of access to and ramps up the rapid dissemination of the information about anyone that is about to ruin their political career.

Of course, staff will be upset by the move as Facebook is easily one of the day’s best diversions as it brings procrastination, web surfing and socializing together in a truly amusing way. However, the decision is a wise one for a team that must deal in this political reality.

The Liberals, predictably, will not follow suit in order to contrast their “openness” and “transparency” to Canadians. In fact, Stephane Dion has been an active participant of the social networking site (“Hello Facebook”). The contrarian move, of course, will be to their folly for the reasons that I outline above. But now, it is the potentially embarrassing Liberal information that is now available while Conservative information has been removed.

It should also be noted that this ban is different from that brought down by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. This ban by the Conservatives only applies to ministerial exempt staff. Facebook will still be accessible on their computers, but they are advised not to participate. McGuinty effectively had the Facebook site made inaccessible from Queen’s Park computers for all staff, regardless of their political stripe (or lack thereof). The aim of McGuinty’s ban is to cut down on procrastination while the Conservative ban is to patch up leaks before they occur.

Defining the blogging medium

Last night, I had the opportunity to be an invited guest speaker at Third Monday, a monthly gathering of PR and government relations professionals on the topics of blogging, politics, and the emergence of social media as media. It was an enjoyable experience as I met some of Ottawa’s top thinkers in the marketing of products and ideas.

Immediately, I was able to appreciate the depth of knowledge that the attendees had in blogging and other forms of social media. After our preliminary chat and before I took the stage, I knew that the crowd was past the stage of explaining “a blog, or web-log is a form of website authored by an individual or group that writes on topics in reverse chronological order”. This was refreshing to know, as I knew that we’d be able to get past the technicalities of the medium and discuss the social, legal and ethical implications of writing a blog.

I have raised open questions in the past about a blog’s role in cataloging one’s observation of events. Specifically, how does one define blogs as media? One observer noted that unlike airwaves, the resources of the Internet and the delivery of information is not limited in a sense that a government body ought to license or regulate its use. Of course, in Canada, we tend to suffer over-regulation as the rule so it was interesting to consider the dissemination of media via the internet as an unregulated resource. However, some in this country would advocate for regulation of media, not because of the scarcity of the resource, but for control of content.

But what of “blogs”? I’ve come to the realization over the past few weeks (and indeed years) that blogging is simply a tool, or the method by which one’s ideas can be disseminated. A “blogger” ought not to represent a certain class of individual with categorical privileges, rights and restrictions. Like the pen, microphone, or typewriter, a blog is simply the tool. The blogger is the reporter.

And of the question of whether or not blogging is journalistic? Last night I was asked if what I do is journalism in any sense. To a degree, I would muse that I am an observer and reporter of news events. Journalists in the mainstream media are employed by companies that are owned by large media organizations (like Rogers or Bell) or powerful teachers unions. Of course, a reporter’s loyalty ought to be only to the truth. I believe that what I do is truth mixed with my own sincere opinion. Then again, some journalists are also analysts or columnists and base their views on what they perceive to be true. They have their partisan preferences and are paid to provide opinion. Certainly that opinion has been focused through a lens of experience unique to the individual.

Am I a journalist, reporter, or columnist? Some may say that I should not be considered a journalist since I have my own agenda. One CBC journalist once complained to me that I don’t declare my biases up front (I think this was derived from a similar charge that I had leveled at him seconds before). “It’s right there at the top of the page — Conservative Party of Canada Pundit”, I explained. I was astonished to hear the CBC journo dismissively grunted that “it’s not enough”. To distill what I do to its base elements, at the end of the day I’m just some guy with an internet connection, opinions and $20 a month to spend on website hosting. However, in a political climate bent on accountability, transparency and high ethical standards (and a country where one could do a Historica minute on our proud regulatory traditions), must I consider following a certain code of conduct? Legally, as long as I don’t write hate or indefensible libel against an individual or group, I believe that I’m entitled to speak as I wish; I certainly do not hold any elected office and am not accountable to anybody but myself. Ethically, however, as part ‘shoestring’ media, I believe that I ought to conform to a certain ethical standard. I hope that I’ve had some degree of success in adhering to it.

I suppose after speaking to a room full of lobbyists, individuals that navigate the ethical and legal complexities defined and redefined by Ottawa, these thoughts tend to come to the fore rather than reside nebulously at the back of one’s mind. If one is to assume that this blog has some measure of influence over its readers and if one were to further assume that many of those readers are policy makers and journalists, does these considerations pose certain ethical dilemmas given certain scenarios? I’ve always stated that my blog has been successful in most part because of my readers. As my audience has grown, more and more people send me interesting ideas and items for my consideration. Of course, some of this material comes from political parties (including anti-Dion Liberals), some comes from the media itself (if it’s too ‘raw for prime-time’). Most of the rest of it comes from everyday Canadians that send in interesting observations. However, at Third Monday, the general question came up asking if I could be sent propaganda by interest groups? Could this information influence me? For example, could someone from the oil and gas send me information to muddy the waters on climate change? Of course they could. However, I would never write anything contrary to my own opinion and I try to verify all facts to a certain degree of confidence. I’m also faithful to my sources and would never reveal who has sent me information.

One certainty exists in a media climate that is constantly changing: our views of media are undefined and may never be. A blog is simply a medium, as I’ve stated above. However, I’m certain that some in the MSM would say that blogging has had the effect of admitting pedestrians into a noble profession. Indeed, the cost of blogging is virtually nil; one only needs to go to the public library to publish one’s thoughts to the world. Blogging has also been a boon to democratic participation as one can participate in formative policy based debate with other citizens as frequently or an infrequently as they wish. Democratically, a citizen is not simply reduced to a voter anymore. I do, however, believe that the evolving definition of journalist ought not to be confused by the medium. At one time even television reporters had to fight for access. Blogging may lower the threshold to participation; however the blogosphere can also be viewed as the best crucible in which those that ought to be read, will be and those that don’t, will figuratively burn away. Thankfully, the internet is the closest medium that we have that approaches an unlimited information resource. Let’s hope that nobody ever tries to regulate it, for we should all have access.