Learning from Facebook

The social-networking site's recent redesign speeds personal connections.

Facebook has recently changed each participant’s homepage to give greater prominence and attention to the news feed, which primarily means more status updates and comments from someone’s Facebook friends. While the change has provoked a lot of pushback from many Facebook users, I like the increased provision of status updates. Previously, one had to visit each friend's page to see them. I feel as if I am learning more, not only about the lives of my Facebook friends but also about the world around me, from all these updates.

Recently, there appeared on my homepage a status update from somebody logging in to Facebook from the Dubai airport, saying the airport, usually crowded to the brim at the day and time of his arrival, was deserted. In a few minutes, some comments appeared on the update, one saying that the construction company for which the commenter worked had been asked to abandon some Dubai work in the middle of the project. With all these informal comments, one learned a lot about what’s happening with the once high-flying Dubai economy in this time of crisis.

I also saw an update from a Kennedy School student from India, who was leaving for a spring break trip to Israel organized by the Israel Students Association. It got a lot of comments from the student’s friends. What was interesting was that none displayed the kind of anti-Israel hostility I would have expected these days — nobody said anything resembling, “How can you visit that racist country?” The comments, particularly from the students’ Facebook friends back in India, were more along the line of “awesome!” and “wish I could be there.” This too taught me something about student moods regarding the situation in the Middle East, particularly among young educated Indians.

I have written in earlier blogs and columns that I personally feel psychologically closer to a Facebook friend than to another person I know equally well who isn’t. I think Facebook friendships will make collaboration easier, an important priority for government. I am also experiencing that the ease of Facebook chat — you see people on the screen as online friends and can easily begin informal chats that wouldn’t occur by phone or e-mail — is creating connections with people I’d otherwise have little interaction with. The new feature that allows a person, with one click, to say “I like this” about a person’s status update, also significantly lowers the cost of connecting.

I more frequently think that social-networking technologies are going to be good for helping manage government better, and government needs to think about how best to take advantage of them.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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