Using Facebook as an organizing tool
Zack Hawkins, president of the Young Democrats of North Carolina, said in a recent television interview that Facebook had become indispensable as an organizing tool for his group. I spoke to Hawkins to get some more details.
There is no hidden magic to tapping the power of what he calls "peer to peer contact on our own terms," it's all stuff built into Facebook and similar services, and familiar to anyone who uses the applications - but using them is a key to the equation, isn't it?
YDNC maintains a presence on both Facebook and MySpace. "We have come to depend on them for organizing purposes," says Hawkins, 28, a high school biology teacher in Durham. He estimates that 75% of the group's communications take place via some electronic medium, including the social nets, an online newsletter, and email.
Planning a meeting or dinner or discussion series is simple using Facebook's standard features. The group creates an event on its own Facebook page, which automatically notifies all of its 600+ members, who can see the event details and RSVP. Organizers can see responses and contact members based on their intentions, urging undecideds to come, for example. Registrants also can invite people from their own list of Facebook friends, leveraging social networks far beyond the group's membership. The same process is recapitulated at MySpace, on which YDNC has a smaller cohort of friends, mostly skewing toward the top end of its 18-35 demographic.
YDNC drew more than 500 people to its annual convention in Raleigh last month, up from 350 last year and just 150 three years ago. Of course, technology alone doesn't draw a crowd: it's a presidential campaign year, and Chelsea Clinton and John Edwards were on the bill. "Nothing replaces good programming," says Hawkins. "You are only as strong as the things you can make happen in the physical world." But Hawkins credits the social nets with helping to increase attendance and simplifying the organizing process in a cost-effective (i.e., free) manner. The group has more than 3,000 email addresses on its list, but response rates on social nets are much higher.
The organization also makes extensive use of YouTube, maintaining its own YDNC TV channel at the video site. "We upload footage of events, and ask members from Murphy to Manteo to do the same," says Hawkins, a native of tiny Chocowinity, NC, using the traditional North Carolina phrase for the state's western and eastern boundaries to describe the statewide effort. "There's nothing like seeing the video, seeing the crowd, feeling the energy, reliving the moment. It's like reality TV." He hopes to collaborate with MTV on a video project before North Carolina's May 6 primary.
Hawkins believes that Facebook and other social networks will play a role in the highest-value organizing game, getting people out to vote. The trick there, he says, is increasing the level of engagement people have with the campaigns and the political process. "The people who are really engaged are coming anyway, you want the other ones. Facebook and YouTube add to your ability to give people more information, and to engage them more deeply."