Sian gets sucked into Facebook

The power of Facebook to the politician plus Ken Livingstone impersonators and other issues

I can hardly fit in writing a blog this week, but I have managed to grab a few minutes away from Facebook to jot a few thoughts down.

For ages and ages I resisted getting involved with this latest manifestation of web 2.0, much as I resisted the lure of a mobile phone for almost a decade. With mobiles I wanted to see if there was any lasting damage to the brain, so I let everyone else be guinea pigs for as long as possible before signing up. I had similar concerns with Facebook but a couple of weeks ago I was persuaded to set up a profile, and now I’m utterly sucked in.

As a politician, Facebook turns out to be a great way to present your views and get feedback from people. Anyone can join your groups and write comments on your ‘wall’ or start a discussion topic (my group Siân for London Mayor has picked up 168 members in just a few weeks, which is lovely) and the ability to post videos lets people see you in flesh talking about their concerns. It all makes producing leaflets to push through letterboxes look rather old school and one-sided.

However, much as I predicted, fiddling around on Facebook can use up a huge amount of time. The trouble is it’s very addictive – you can spend hours checking your ‘friend requests’, touring round the profiles of friends of friends of friends, seeing what groups they belong to and where they went on their holidays. And God help you if you start adding applications.

There are millions of these; mostly ersatz games that use Facebook’s networking capacity to create huge contests between different camps. If you join Facebook, you will quickly be inundated with invitations to take sides in an epic battle between werewolves and vampires, or approached by recruiters from the pirates, ninjas, zombies and jedis. I have been sent gifts ranging from poker chips to fish for my aquarium. I don’t think I can take on any of this responsibility so I’m steering clear of the ‘apps’ for the time being.

On the other hand, the groups on Facebook are a great way to get involved in political mischief. Looking for a group that opposes the mad Thames Gateway motorway bridge, I found one with a ‘related groups’ list showing it mainly included local Conservatives (the list is compiled automatically, based on the other groups members belong to). But, adding it to my groups brought ‘No to the Thames Gateway Bridge’ to the attention of Greens in London so, a couple of dozen new members later, the related groups were ‘Sian for London Mayor’, ‘Census Alert’, ‘Green Party’, ‘Renationalise the British Railway Network’ and ‘Campaign Against Climate Change’. Result! (Although this might change if the Tories decide to fight back.)

You see, it’s very hard not to be competitive about all this. My declared rivals in the London Mayor election next year don’t appear to be up yet officially, but there’s plenty to be jealous of in the meantime. There are literally hundreds of student Boris Johnson fan clubs on Facebook, including ‘Boris for King’, ‘Boris for Pope’ and ‘Boris Johnson for President of the World’, plus about equal numbers of ‘Re-elect Ken’ and ‘Anyone but Ken’ groups.

The most plausible Livingstone impersonator has put all the right details into his profile, but the picture seems to give the game away. Would the real Ken Livingstone have chosen to show himself standing in front of a row of bearskinned royal guards? I beg to quibble, and none of the nineteen ‘Boris Johnsons’ are very convincing either.

Facebook seems a much friendlier place than the internet at large, mainly due to the way it’s arranged in overlapping networks, so there is a danger that our efforts are only reaching natural Green supporters (not a bad thing, initially anyway). All my Facebook friends are pretty wholesome, so I rarely see anything dodgy, but I got a bit of a shock when a troll appeared on a Green Party group and posted something nasty (since removed by us). I went to have a look at his profile, and a whole world of unpleasant interest groups and right-wing nonsense was revealed, all of which I’ll continue to avoid in the future.

On the whole I’m enjoying myself at the moment, but two improvements I’d made immediately are for the admins to kick off the BNP’s groups and to heed our call to list ‘green’ as your political view (the closest their US-focused drop-down menu has at the moment is ‘very liberal’ but we have a campaign of emailing them to persuade them to change it).

These examples show Facebook’s one major drawback. Like many successful web ventures, Facebook’s success comes from its ubiquity; I can see the day when nearly everyone is on it, and this does put a lot of power into the hands of one company. I’d be very reluctant to put any truly personal information into my Facebook profile because of the US-based nature of the database and the fact that the Patriot Act means their intelligence services have easy access.

Things like not being able to list your political beliefs are relatively trivial, but the rest of the world probably has greater problems with its monolingual English interface. Britain also has to put up with enormous ‘local networks’ at the moment, with a ‘London’ network of little use compared with the ability to create one for each borough or neighbourhood. The power to do this (or to choose a fascist-free network) lies with the developers, not the users, so I’m looking forward to the Son of Facebook being a peer-to-peer system that is far more adaptable and lets us choose how we share this information and where it goes.