Facebook has Some Missing Nouns

I just posted this on my blog about local elected officials who use social media. Any thoughts on whether I am making too much of the language within Facebook? The original post is at http://electing2blog.blogspot.com/2009/08/facebooks-missing-noun.html

As Facebook becomes more popular, it seems to become more effective. I posted a note asking for volunteers for our city’s transportation board, and I already had a person respond to the Facebook post. That’s better than I’ve seen via blogs or email.

Obviously, more testing is needed, but this is a good sign.

Yet I am leery of putting more time into Facebook. Here’s where I see a problem with Facebook as the definitive networking solution. You can be a friend or a supporter, but you can’t apparently just be a contact or monitor. The language used within Facebook has not caught up with its popularity. That can create awkwardness both in business and politics.

This has been nagging at me awhile, but a casual chat last night really brought it to mind.

One of my fellow Lakewood city council members has been on vacation in Hawaii. He has posted some pictures of himself scuba-diving. I mentioned after the meeting last Monday to the city manager that I was enjoying the updates on the councilman’s trip and mentioned the pictures on Facebook. The city manager said something about how he really needs to get on Facebook, but then commented, “But that raises the question, should I be a “friend” of a council member?”

Well, that’s a darn good question. The city manager directly reports to the city council. In a way, it’s like asking if an employee in any job should friend a supervisor. And yet when public officials are in a spotlight, it seems reasonable to me that government employees would want to keep in touch with what they are doing via Facebook.

My inclination would be to tell the city manager, sure, ‘friend’ me and the other council members. But let’s say I run for re-election …. would someone accuse me of being “too close” to the city manager? What do people, particularly those unfamiliar with Facebook, consider a ‘friend?’

The reason this has been on my mind at all is because there are a couple of organizations I’ve thought about following on Facebook but haven’t. That’s because of how Facebook describes someone who follows a page. Right now, if you decide to follow my City Council page, you are listed as a “supporter” of Walter Neary, the councilman. Well, I’d love that … but it also seems that someone who might want to withhold judgment or someone who might even want to run against me would want to follow my page. It’s very strange for that person to have to sign up as a “supporter.”

Myself, I’d love to follow a couple of business competitors of my employer, Comcast. I know people who work at some of the other companies; it’s not like business competition has to be personal. I’d love to know what they are up to, and would be delighted if they showed interest in my company’s local Facebook page. But it seems odd and awkward that I a Comcast employee have to sign up as a “supporter” of Verizon.

Here’s a bit of an unusual wrinkle on this matter: There’s one business competitor of ours in Tacoma that twice mailed to people attacks on the effectiveness of what I do for the company, community relations. Needless to say, I sure don’t want to sign up as a “supporter” of folks who put out a mailing that misled my wife when she read it. That hurt. I’m no supporter of that. But I’d like to follow their page on Facebook, if only to see if they continue to say anything misleading about me or what I do.

So in business and politics, I see a disconnect between Facebook’s use of the terms “friends” and “supporters,” and it’s growing use as a broad social portal and town hall. What do you think?

A postscript: Some of the readers who have been at politics and social media for awhile will have another question. If the city manager and I are friends on Facebook, might we generate email to each other outside the city email system that would have to be disclosed through the public records act? And wouldn’t that be an archiving nightmare? Yes, and yes, so that alone might settle the question. But my point remains, does Facebook have the best language for its role as a social portal?)

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Amanda Blount

I have long thought about this issue. There are many people (especially coworkers) who I really enjoy their company and would love to keep up with them on facebook, but we do not consider each other “friends”. I would love to be able to hit the button “contact” on another person and be done with it. But, I guess we have to remember where Facebook came from. It was morphed from a college yearbook called a facebook, and it was for a particular college. Then other colleges joined in. So, maybe, at least originally, all of your contacts were friends. Now they are alot of “contacts” and a few friends. I agree, maybe there should be more titles on Facebook, but where do we stop with the titles…”contacts”, “family”, “contributor”, “elected official”, “non-supporter” and even possibly … “pets” (I would love to pick that one for some folks – HEE HEE). In any case, I agree there should be more titles for Facebook. I hope, with all the professionals, bands, groups, businesses, etc, maybe there will be additional titles that will be created.


Fascinating. I agree as well. The term supporter can mean a lot in contact. I just want to follow like Twitter rather than necessarily support. It will be interesting to see how the online catches up with the network interactions that already occur. For example, I want to follow the White House to get updates but I also don’t want to seem too political.

Rachel Lunsford

I don’t think Facebook markets itself as a town hall and I’m not so certain what a social portal is. Part of what you discuss can be solved by how the person’s or group’s page is secured. For an individual, he can say how much the public can see, how much each network can see, and how much friends can see. If the councilman chose the options to let most of his profile be public (since he is a public official), then you don’t have to friend him. In terms of the organization or something you have to support, the same is pretty much true, but slightly easier to do.

Dennis McDonald

I started thinking about this problem a couple of years ago (e.g., http://www.ddmcd.com/managing-technology/do-we-need-portable-relationship-maps-for-social-networks.html ) but I don’t see any solutions developing. We all adopt different definitions of “friend” and “colleague” depending on the social or professional environment we’re operating in. Online networks built around categories that enable easy management of transaction privileges just can’t compare or keep up with the with the nuances that exist with human relationships. This is one of the reasons I’ve reduced the number of online social networks I spend time with while at the same time I don’t have the same interest in “relationship map portability” that I once had.

David Kuehn

You make excellent points that relate not only to Facebook but to other social networking sites. It is interesting that social networking is touted as an open, democratic system but does not have an architecture that allows for 100 year old progressive premises. I expect, however, that if we let it be known there is an interest in providing transparency such as the ability for people to be observers or to maintain open records, then enterprising people will design solutions that work with existing social networking sites or build better sites.

Yun-Mei Lin

I like Twitter’s “Follow” and Linked-In’s “Contact” – these are much more neutral terms, and indicate much more closely what the relationship is. And I agree with David that if enough voices sound with a request, that maybe the Powers-That-Be can redefine their terms, but whenever we use a service provided by others, we should be aware that we are using THEIR terminology, and it may not be reflective of our own realities.

It should be enough that we use the full term – “Facebook friend” and our audience should understand that it is a contact we have in Facebook and not a definition of how we feel about that person. For example, I very recently Friend-requested, and was accepted, by our city’s mayor. I am not personally fond of this person, but I’d like to keep up with the mayor’s goings-on.

Kevin Lanahan

If you want to have “supporters” in Facebook, consider setting up a Page. Save your Facebook Profile account for your personal networks, and use the fan Page for your political/business communication.

Walter Neary

Good feedback, everyone. I was more pointing out a gap than expecting to change Facebook, as they are doing pretty well without my guidance 😀 In a way, I think it’s a shame that Facebook friend is starting to mean ‘contact,’ but that sort of social networking will happen somewhere, whether FB or someone else who wants my eyeballs, traffic and time. David’s point is well taken in that surely private entrepreneurs or govt IT people are working on other methods of collaborative digital discourse.