By Julia Quanrud
“People only use Facebook for stalking people they’re attracted to,” says C., somewhat jokingly. According to C., a recent Minnesotan college grad, he only uses Facebook “to get in touch with people for whom I don’t have other contact mechanisms and for things that aren’t urgent.”
For M., another recent grad from Minnesota, Facebook is a means for “staying in contact with my family outside the Twin Cities.” M. also uses Facebook to connect with old friends, and used it occasionally during the 2008 political campaigns to connect with organized political activities around the RNC.
Both C. and M. feel that Facebook has little to no value for them in terms of civic engagement. Neither connects with nonprofits on Facebook, despite the fact that both are involved in their community and volunteer regularly. The nonprofit for which C. volunteers on the weekends recently set up a Facebook group, but C. doesn’t participate, because it seemed “redundant”. Rather, C. prefers direct email from the nonprofit’s volunteer coordinator.
But if Facebook is the website of choice for young adults these days, why can’t organizations effectively use it to engage with model young citizens like C. and M.? A less-than-scientific survey of my hippest friends revealed that most young adults view Facebook as a recreational activity. You probably shouldn’t use it at work, but it is better than a tabloid when it comes to keeping up with gossip and procrastinating. So, if organizations want to reach young and active folks like C. and M. via Facebook, there better be a great incentive for them to visit the organization’s page instead of playing Mafia Wars.
The eroded boundary between the professional and personal aspects of Facebook also discourages young adults from engaging with organizations on Facebook. Users might like portraying themselves as wild party animals to their 200 closest friends, but when professional organizations come knocking, they might become a lot less comfortable with the Facebook identity they’ve created for themselves. After all, the photo “remove tag” button is there for a reason. Organizations might try to lure young Facebook users to their page with some fancy Facebook applications, but those applications require users to sign away their privacy rights (and they may be less useful than advertised). And while Facebook encourages organizations to buy ads in order to attract more users, how effective can an organization’s ad be when it’s adjacent to an ad like this?
That said, civic organizations should continue to explore the potential of Facebook, but they should first develop a strong strategic plan that respects users’ privacy while avoiding what I would label the “fan and flee” syndrome (a Facebook user becomes a fan of an organization’s Facebook page, and then never visits the page again). Facebook can certainly play a role in engaging youth, as demonstrated by the 2008 Obama campaign, but it is by no means the best way to connect with young adults. As C. said, the most valuable form of communication with his nonprofit of choice was a direct email. How old-fashioned.