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Outsmarting the Facebook Lobster Trap: Three Worries, One Guideline, Seven Principles

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Seminar: Facing Facebook: Achieving Meaningful Success in Online Social Networks

Publication: Communication Centered Technology Planning, 2nd Edition

If you found this article interesting or helpful, please consider making a donation to Nonprofit Online News. It will probably feel good!

By Michael C. Gilbert, June 30, 2009

Everyone is talking about Facebook. Still. Although I'm now finally teaching a workshop on the subject, for two years and more, I put off doing anything that might contribute to the Facebook hype. Here's why.

    They hang the man, and flog the woman,
      That steals the goose from off the common;
    But let the greater villain loose,
      That steals the common from the goose.
                        -- anonymous 17th Century protest poem

Enclosure is a process whereby a resource held in common is taken into private control. The acts of enclosure of the industrial age were about land, they were brutal and conspicuous, and they were implemented, to a large degree, by force. The acts of enclosure of the information age are about social assets, they are subtle and invisible, and they are being implemented, to a large degree, by peer pressure. Although the larger dynamic of digital enclosure should be the subject of a longer piece, today I'll touch briefly on what this dynamic means for constructive nonprofit use of Facebook.

Three Things to Worry About

1. The Facebook upsides are much smaller than we think.

First, we are more motivated by a handful of stories of great success associated with Facebook than we are discouraged by the many orders of magnitude more organizations who receive little or no benefit from their investment. In many cases, pouring resources into Facebook is like playing the lottery and many nonprofits are acting like they have a gambling problem. Second, most successes that we attribute to Facebook are not about Facebook at all, but are in fact simply Facebook riding the coattails of good old fashioned community organizing or straightforward marketing muscle. Furthermore, many of them could just as easily have been implemented through any peer-to-peer tools and in fact often are. Third, everyone is trying to justify Facebook investments they have already made or are about to make. The most popular way to do this is to show how other organizations like theirs are doing it. We call that "best practices". When teenagers do it, we call it "peer pressure". Fourth, almost all the resulting language describing Facebook successes is anecdotal, untestable mush.

2. Facebook is a kinder, gentler version of a dotcom strategy that's been with us for years, called Give Us Your List.

Thousands of nonprofits fell for this a decade ago when it often involved handing over your list to an ecommerce company that would sell things to your stakeholders, with you getting a cut. I suppose it's a little different now. When you invite your stakeholders to join Facebook, you're handing over your list to a company that will provide them some useful web-based tools, expose them to other companies (advertisers) that will try to sell things to them. And you don't get a cut. That's better, right?

3. Facebook is basically designed like a lobster trap with your friends as bait.

This walled-off nature has three interesting layers to it. First, it's hard to get your content out of Facebook once you put it in. When someone figured out how to create a simple outbound RSS feed of your own updates, Facebook managers blocked it. You can't just export all your content in a form you can use elsewhere, without going to a lot of trouble. Facebook is a content management system (CMS), among other things, and should be evaluated by any responsible organization just like any other CMS, including interoperability and exit costs. Second, the more content you put into Facebook, especially if it's in a form that people can't get elsewhere, the more you're serving as Facebook bait yourself. It's even worse if you start inviting your stakeholders there directly. All the same exit costs apply at this level as well, only multiplied by the difficulty of being bound by expectation that it's inside Facebook that you'll connect with your stakeholders and them with each other. Third, this scales up to entire social networks and communities. If everyone's friends are at the mall, then we'll abandon the public spaces as well. That's enclosure.

Why You Should Probably Still Use Facebook

So with all these concerns, why would anyone use Facebook? Well, obviously, because their friends are there - we like the bait. Interestingly though, nonprofits often don't do it for these reasons! Hundreds of our donors aren't sending us Facebook invitations. Our volunteers aren't usually getting out ahead of us and setting up Facebook Groups that we need to rush to join. No, mostly we are interested in Facebook for reasons (as I describe in another article) of hype, anxiety, and hope.

And yet, it's precisely our existing stakeholders, not Facebook itself, who are the reason we may still consider using the site. The number one test for whether we should invest in Facebook is whether, and to what degree, our stakeholders are themselves using it. A survey of our stakeholders is far more important in this regard than a survey of other organizations like our own. Which of our stakeholders have Facebook accounts? How many friends do they have there? Are they involved in other causes there? How often do they consume information through the site? More importantly, how often do they produce information through the site? These are the things we need to know in order to decide both whether and how to participate in Facebook.

How to Make the Most of Facebook

In addition to the big decision about whether to invest in Facebook at all, dozens of strategic directions will emerge from mapping out the peer to peer communication patterns of your existing stakeholders. You'll figure out the kinds of communication that work best, within the norms and expectations of the social networks of which you are a part. You'll be able to design a strategy that most suits the people whose support, introductions, and connections you need in order to expand those networks.

But even with such a strategy in place, there are a few principles you should still follow, in order to minimize the concerns I identified earlier, while still making the most of Facebook:

  1. Never require anyone to use Facebook to interact with you in a particular way. For example, always make the same content available in an open format elsewhere.
  2. Never require anyone to use Facebook to interact with their peers in a particular way. That is to say, don't make your part of Facebook into an exclusive club.
  3. Always look for ways to pull people out of the lobster trap and into the greater connective commons. Use Facebook as an entry point into other, more broadly connective media, never the other way around.
  4. Never develop content only for Facebook. This is a corollary of #1, but warrants emphasis.
  5. Always work to make your network's social maps more generally visible. In other words, one of Facebook's strong features is being able to meet friends of friends. In the case of your networks, don't let Facebook be the only place that happens.
  6. Never confuse Facebook with the social networks off of which it feeds. For example, don't name your social networking projects after Facebook or other media. Name them after the groups of stakeholders you are trying to empower.
  7. Always be especially disciplined in your thinking where peer pressure is at work. Keep in mind how you are influencing people by virtue of the connections you're fostering.

It's been said, with great scorn, that Facebook is the new AOL. There's a lot of truth to this, but it doesn't mean we don't have to face it as an important communication medium for many people. If we follow our stakeholders, rather than our anxieties, and that leads us, among other places, to Facebook, then so be it! If we design around those stakeholders and adhere to a few basic principles, we'll make the most of it.



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