How Social Networking Is Changing Politics and Public Service

How Facebook and Twitter are helping remake public service.

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What could the Sierra Club and Sarah Palin possibly have in common? Both use technology—specifically the latest generation of social networking services—to get the word out, raise money, and draw people to their causes. Just as personal computers changed the face of business forever, social networking is changing the face of public service.

Or rather, the Facebook of public service. With over 500 million users, Facebook has become the touchstone for how nonprofits, environmental activists, and political factions reach out to hundreds of thousands of potential volunteers and donors. Its pages are used to present video pitches and instructions on how to join organizations, perform one-click donations via Paypal, and support local write-in campaigns.

But there's now an even wider array of technologies being deployed in the cause of public service, from so-called microblogging services like Twitter to the custom social networking service Ning and the location-based service Gowalla, tapping into the popularity of smartphones equipped with GPS. It's a potent combination of high-tech gadgetry and widespread Web access that is making it feasible for smaller groups and individuals to make a difference—often with little or no money.

Back in 2003, for example, Deron Beal sent an E-mail announcing his new Freecycle Network to friends in Tucson, Ariz., who he thought would be willing to give unwanted items like vacuum cleaners and computers away rather than have them and their toxic elements end up in landfills. "We have about 10,000 volunteers globally" now, says Beal. "We have about 7.5 million members in 110 countries and have done so as a charity with no fees," pretty impressive given that "the founder had no tech skills." Initially, Freecycle used Yahoo Groups to connect people who wanted to give away items with those willing to pick them up. Today, the nonprofit uses so-called open-source software, downloaded without charge, to manage its growing network.

It's a technology lesson that hasn't been lost on politicians, especially those behind in the polls and low on contributions. The political landscape is rife with examples. Battling well-known Democrat Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts earlier this year, the campaign of Republican underdog Scott Brown made extensive use of Ning to enlist local volunteers it dubbed Brown's Brigades. "We organized it based on towns starting with about 10 to 15 local brigades," explains Rob Willington, online director for the campaign. Interested voters joined the groups, engaged by staffer blogs and discussions on issues that concerned them. The campaign then used these members as a digital army to reach voters not on the network. "We didn't have enough money to have our own phone banks, for example, so we uploaded a file to the brigades and said we need help to contact these voters," says Willington. This virtual campaign office freed up staffers from more mundane and time-consuming tasks such as delivering signs. Online volunteers distributed them instead.

"In the past, you would have needed hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a platform like that," says Ning CEO Jason Rosenthal. Ning charges as little as $2.95 a month. Unlike Facebook, which is free, Ning provides subscribers with a unique domain name and sophisticated website-like features, such as setting specific security and privacy controls, handling credit card donations, and allowing users to write blog posts that then can be promoted on larger services such as LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, and even Facebook.

Rosenthal calls it "a hub-and-spoke model" of social networking that he believes is finally allowing the Internet to do what many hoped it would do a decade ago: change the world. Even those with virtually limitless budgets are leveraging these services, such as former eBay CEO and billionaire Meg Whitman, in her campaign to become governor of California, and financier T. Boone Pickens, whose Pickens Plan to promote natural gas and wind power has garnered over 200,000 members online in 91 congressional districts, according to Rosenthal. The technology's global reach means it can be used to help those in crisis, such as victims of the January earthquake in Haiti. The American Red Cross raised more than $32 million in text-messaged donations alone after the quake.