Spend three minutes staring at the gatekeeper for any member of Congress and you'll likely witness a similar scene. Sometimes the scribbles are more formal: Callers' names and numbers may be typed into a database. However it plays out, constituents' calls to Congress members have been an important facet of governing ever since the telephone came to the Capitol.
Facebook is changing that paradigm. It's allowing elected officials not only to hear from their constituents but also to respond to them, one at a time, without leaving their offices or the House floor or the back seat of a taxi.
"When people talk to me on Facebook, they know they are talking directly to me and not a gatekeeper," says Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican who last year won a "new-media challenge" in which GOPers raced to sign up the most fans on Facebook and other social-networking sites. Fleming's approach to Facebook, which not all lawmakers take, is working. His page has nearly 27,000 fans. That's 4 percent of his district's population.
And what Fleming is doing--personally connecting with his Facebook fans--Adam Conner is encouraging others in Congress to do.
"We talk a lot about authenticity and how that means engaging in a two-way conversation on Facebook," Conner says. "But there are still plenty of folks out there who use Facebook as a one-way thing to get sound bites out there."
You get the feeling that Mark Zuckerberg--the real one--might say the same thing. Conner speaks in the multisyllabic vocabulary of a tech geek. There's a lot of "recalibration" and "extrapolation" and "aggregation" and "evangelization" and its more active variant, "evangelize," which, in a word, defines Conner's job for Facebook. He's there, he says, to "evangelize the product.
"Can you imagine a lobbyist for, say, Exxon Mobil saying he's "evangelizing" on behalf of one of the world's most profitable companies? But Facebook inspires this kind of passion in its employees. Whatever you call it, Conner clearly relishes his job, which is part lobbyist and part salesman with a little tech-support guy thrown in. His mission: to spread the word that Facebook is the governance and communication tool of the future.
On that front, Conner may be preaching to the converted. Social media played a key role in the midterm elections that threw the House back into Republican hands, and both parties are battling to gain the online advantage between now and the 2012 elections.
Social-media services such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are in everyday use--sometimes every-minute use--by lawmakers. Especially Facebook. As one GOP digital-media aide puts it, "We now have a two-way dialogue with constituents that wasn't possible before Facebook."
Maybe that's why Facebook's Washington office is swamped with requests from lawmakers, news organizations, and government agencies that want to hear from the source how they can make better use of Facebook. Even the not yet elected have come calling. But Conner can't help everyone.
"On a practical level, there are 535 members of Congress, and then with challengers and the primaries, there can be thousands of people running for Congress," he says. "With me only having so many hours in the day, we prefer to work where we can to train in scale."
That means conducting what Facebook calls "candidate schools," where it trains anyone from corporate PR types to government officials in the latest ways to use Facebook to connect with mass audiences. Conner has headed candidate schools for the House Republican Caucus, the Senate Press Secretaries Association, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and a handful of congressional committees as well as new-media directors at the State and Defense departments and various intelligence agencies.
"Nothing can beat having Adam Conner come in and do a presentation to members of Congress," says Katie Harbath, who was chief digital strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 2010 elections. "That's much better than me having to explain things like the privacy settings and what other people are doing with their Facebook pages."
At least it was better. A month after our interview, Facebook made Harbath its tenth hire for the DC office. As an associate manager for public policy, she assists Conner in training Hill staffers and lawmakers to use Facebook better and in anything else that comes up. Such as when Conner was contacted around 9 pm by a US Army digital-media officer who believed someone was impersonating him on Facebook. Conner had the false identity eradicated from the service.
Next: Congress gets cozy with Facebook