Can Facebook, Capitol Hill be friends? Lawmakers learn social networking.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Inside the headquarters of the National Republican Congressional Committee, 25-year-old Adam Conner -- registered Facebook lobbyist, poster of multiple Obama attaboys and a guy whose Facebook photo is a grizzly bear wielding two chain saws -- sits to teach a course. The subject: How to use Facebook better. His student: Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.).
"If we're going to improve our presence on Facebook and really maximize it, what would you recommend as tangible steps?" Roskam asks, thumbing his BlackBerry.
"It looks like you're very comfortable with your BlackBerry," Conner replies earnestly. "Maybe commit to a status message a day? A photo a week? Dive deeper. You'll be surprised at how things that seem routine to you as a congressman are so interesting and cool to constituents."
Conner is Facebook's evangelist in Washington, a social-networking pro summoned by elected officials and bureaucrats alike to teach them, free of charge, how to leverage Facebook -- within strict government rules and security guidelines. The mere existence of Conner's hand-holding lessons illustrates the cultural gulf between Washington and Silicon Valley, and spotlights the complex web of congressional rules that limit social networking among federal workers.
Conner is certainly grateful for his job as associate manager of Facebook's privacy and public-policy division. Compared with many of his highly educated but underemployed peers in Washington, Conner is doing just fine financially, earning about $75,000 a year, with equity to boot. (He declined to give specifics on his salary or stock options.)
But striver that he is, Conner, a 2006 George Washington alumnus who worked on Democrat Mark Warner's exploratory presidential campaign in 2006, chafes at his mechanic's role and the clash of cultures between Facebook's open-book attitude and Washington's need-to-know boundaries.
He's impatient for a time when he no longer receives as many as 20 help requests a day from government officials. "Everyone really wants to talk on the phone in D.C., and it's often not a polite request," says Conner, who is considering graduate school and entering politics one day. "It's often, 'Call me today.' Yeah, we have a 'Help' section on Facebook. It's very helpful. At the bottom of the page, it says 'Help.' "
On his own public Facebook page -- boasting 2,500 "friends," including many government officials -- Conner stays true to the transparency-is-king credo of the Internet.
One of his status updates earlier this month was this re-tweet -- the re-posting of another person's Twitter post: "RT @cjoh: Go outside. Feel that hail? That's God being pissed off at Joe Lieberman." Or, some days later: "Not a politics party till people start referring to previous hookups present by campaign cycle, like 'She was New Hampshire Primary 07.' "
His day job requires him to seek inroads with security-conscious government agencies and uptight lawmakers -- some of whom are looking into limiting Facebook's running room on privacy issues. But off the clock, Conner's Facebook page is unmoored from the Beltway ethic of caution.
Nor does Conner hold back on his partisan positions, a fact that does not seem to poison his relations with those on the right. Last week, Conner posted a link to a Web site devoted to mocking Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, adding as preface: "this one is legendary."
"He'll be sitting in my office and I'll ask him, 'Is your skin burning?' " said John Randall, the National Republican Congressional Committee's e-campaign director, who has requested Conner's help for two "campaign schools" this year designed to help Republican candidates improve their Facebook pages. "He just comes back and says, 'Hey, I am a businessman. I think you guys are wrong on a bunch of stuff, and other things not so much.' But I understand what he does. Facebook is a business and there are people who want to spend money on Facebook who are Republicans."