Does Facebook’s ‘friend limit’ thwart the ability for mass organization?

A friend of mine sent me the following story of a Canadian union organizer banned from Facebook for making too many friends:

CUPE organizer/Labour Start correspondent Derek Blackadder’s foray into labor-related social networking was rudely interrupted by a warning from Facebook saying that he was making too many friends.

Facebook LogoHe then asked me, “Does this thwart the potential for organizing through Facebook?”

No, I said. And here’s why:

Obviously, if you want to get a message out to organize a protest, a prayer service or anything else , you’ll get that message out most QUICKLY by having a lot of friends, say, more than the 5,000 limit. Note I said most QUICKLY. (This is the equivalent of broadcasting a message through a traditional one-to-many medium).

But not necessarily most EFFECTIVELY, nor most SUCCESSFULLY, if the barometer for success is how many people take the desired action you’re hoping for.

Here’s the key

Successfully organizing on Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean one person broadcasting a message to 5,000 people. If anything, that message is going to be watered down for broad appeal, less relevant to each specific person, and prompt the least (percentage wise) action.

The KEY is getting 50 people to each tell 50 people to teach tell 50 people, etc., etc., etc. (Or, really, 5 people to tell 5 people, etc., etc., etc.) Each message then becomes a relevant, targeted message, and a message that the recipient of which is most likely to pass on.

And that’s what gives social networking sites, such as Facebook, such a great potential for organization.

So you sort of have two issues: 1) crafting the right message and 2) getting that message to the right people.

Obviously what I’m describing here is simply viral marketing in theory (the practitioners of which will tell you in reality is anything but simple).

5 thoughts on “Does Facebook’s ‘friend limit’ thwart the ability for mass organization?

  1. But where’s the advantage of that over e-mail? Not just in practical terms but in that the folks on a mailing list would presumeably have made some kind of commitment to the shared values your action is an expression?


  2. Thanks for commenting Derek. In full disclosure, I have no experience organizing on Facebook at the level you have. But I’ll take my best stab at where I see the advantage and definitely let me know what you think.

    The advantage of doing it through Facebook versus via e-mail is the ease with which you can send out relevant Facebook messages (I know it sounds strange to cast e-mail as a cumbersome or labor-intensive medium through which to send a message, but hear me out).

    Given the immense database of information Facebook has collected (both in terms of people, their connections and their interests) I find it much easier to pass on a message through Facebook than e-mail. With Facebook, I can quickly scan my ‘friend’s’ interests, political orientations, etc., and decide whether or not they’d find the message particularly relevant. I’ve used Hotmail, gMail, Outlook and Entourage and they’re great e-mail clients, but none of them know anything about my friends. I could take a message I receive via e-mail and forward it to my mailing list, but I’d be knowing that, for the majority of people in my address book, I’m most likely cluttering their Inbox.

    What do you think?


  3. But your ‘universe’ is necessarily smaller than, say, a mailing list like LabourStart’s (54,000, all asking to be on) and narrower in many senses, no?

    The politics of FB’s owners, privacy concerns, concerns about having the rug pulled out at crucial point in an organizing effort…a lot of trade unionists won’t go near FB. And I suspect that is true of others as well.


  4. But your ‘universe’ is necessarily smaller…

    As I said before, I won’t argue with you on which medium is more effective for organizing, because you’re the expert. But here’s my take, for what it’s worth.

    Just given the numbers you threw out there (a 54,000 mailing list of interested folks versus the universe of Facebook) If the message is relevant enough to get 5 people to tell 5 people, as I proposed in my example, it only takes 6 iterations (or 5^7) before you’ve reached 78,125 people. I wouldn’t say it’s a small universe at all.

    Now we can go back and forth about the likelihood of that happening (which is every organizer’s, not to mention viral marketer’s, dream), and I’ll be the first to admit it’s not likely. Many won’t forward the message. Many won’t act. And many within that fantasy number will be repeats. But at the same time, many won’t respond to a blast e-mail. Heck, I belong to a regional Chicago Burning Man e-mail list, one dedicated to a specific comic book author, as well as one dedicated to the discussion of open source software in electronic voting systems. You can believe the majority of the messages that reach me on those lists aren’t too relevant to me. But I remain on the list because the effort to unsubscribe exceeds the effort it takes to delete.

    So again, I’ll certainly defer to you on the ability to use these two media (e-mail blasts and Facebook) for organizing purposes. At the end of the day, what I find sincerely distinguishes them is that e-mail blasts constitute a broadcast (mass) media and organizing on Facebook can represent a more personal, word-of-mouth style of marketing.

    In any case, I’m not saying it’s easy. I wouldn’t know if it’s easy.

    What’s your take?

    On your second point…a lot of trade unionists won’t go near FB. And I suspect that is true of others as well. I suspect you’re right. One question: do you think they also shy from Facebook for fear of allowing others control over the conversation, afraid of allowing users to adapt their message? I find that’s the case in the journalism/PR/marketing world, and I’d be interested to hear your take on that.



  5. I’m curious Derek – do you think you got booted off of Facebook because of making too many friends, or was it because you are a labor organizer? Is it just coincidental? Are there other people in other professions who are also getting the boot for making that many friends? Just curious what you personally think about that.


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