Facebook Co-Founder Chris Hughes on Gladwell, Palin, ‘The Social Network’ and His New Startup, Jumo

Last week, the New Yorker published a piece by Malcolm Gladwell, in which “The Tipping Point” author argued that “social media evangelists” vastly overstate the value of social media in activism.

I disagreed with much of the piece, but more interesting is the perspective of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who led most of the company’s product development until 2007. It was then that Hughes answered another calling: becoming the director of online organizing for Barak Obama’s 2008 election campaign, where he was credited with turning armies of passionate volunteers into organized activists.

Indeed, in a profile of Hughes last year, Fast Company reported that, “By the time the campaign was over, volunteers had created more than 2 million profiles on the site, planned 200,000 offline events, formed 35,000 groups, posted 400,000 blogs, and raised $30 million on 70,000 personal fund-raising pages.” 

Now, Hughes, 26, is about to launch Jumo, a social network specifically designed to connect people to non-profit organizations. On Friday, we talked about that effort. Hughes also gave me his take on Gladwell, “The Social Network” (the movie ostensibly about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook), and the meaning of a role he’d taken last year as an entrepreneur-in-residence at venture firm General Catalyst Partners.

Q: You read Gladwell’s article on social media. What were your thoughts?

A: Well, Gladwell makes two main arguments: one about hierarchy, the other that social media makes activism more superficial. About the hierarchy argument, I do think that networking technologies, as they exist right now, are difficult for organizers to use to accomplish any type of substantive goal. You need people who are either full-time organizers, in the case of political organizers, or experts in a given field, who can be responsible for carrying through any type of mass movement. Lots of people can believe in a cause, but unless you have a handful of people thinking strategically about how to make that belief into a reality, it’s quite difficult.

I think that’s actually what you saw in the Obama campaign. Unlike previous campaigns, it wasn’t purely a bottoms-up movement that lacked any type of structure. If anything, I think it was the right combination of bottoms-up mass movement with enough of a centralized structure to ensure that energy and enthusiasm were used as instructively as possible.

Q: And what of Gladwell’s argument that social media fosters a superficial kind of activism, in part owing to weak network ties?

A: Gladwell seems to be living with a different Internet than other users. The majority of Americans are online. Those of us with smart phones are online all the time in a certain sense, because we have computers in our pockets. Maybe five or 10 years ago, the idea that we’d be on our computer screens and [pretend to] be different people and chat [might have been true]. But as we spend more and more time on the Internet, we spend it as ourselves, whether on Facebook or Facebook Connect. So I felt that was emblematic of not being caught up with the way that Americans are using technology.

Where I also don’t think [Gladwell] understands social media was his argument that “liking” something on Facebook is people’s definition of activism. The implication is really off base. No one is claiming that following someone on Twitter is activism. It’s much more akin to having a conversation around a dining room table. Someone might say, “I really care what’s happening with climate change,” or, “What’s happened in Darfur in the last decade is an outrage.” In “liking” something, that’s saying that I agree this is something to care about. It’s just the first step. But an opportunity can come out of that. Look at the Obama campaign, or what’s going on with the Tea Party movement, as well as several lesser examples.

Q: An important election season is upon us. Who is using social media particularly well, in your view?

A: I’ve seen some good uses of technology, but not a lot, and I’d be hesitant to single anyone out. Though she’s not a candidate running for office, I think Sarah Palin is using technology quite well. The way she uses Facebook in particular to have an unfiltered conversation with her supporters is really powerful for her. Does that mean she’ll run a good campaign [in 2012] or have a message that resonates with the vast majority of American people? Not necessarily. But right now, her use of technologies has strengthened her as much if not more than traditional media.

Q: Is there any way for politicans to use Jumo, once it’s up and running?

A: No, we’re limiting it to organizations that are working to change the world, and that’s a purposely chosen phrase. It’s broad enough to allow any organization with a charitable mission, including 501c3s, 501c4s and advocacy organizations. But we’re excluding PACs, political candidates and initiatives that don’t have a social mission.

Q: And what can you tell our readers about Jumo?

A: The idea is to connect people who want to change the world. I spent a lot of time on [Obama’s] campaign talking with smart, great people who worked at organizations domestically and internationally who were having a hard time adapting to the social web, and again and again, we came to the conclusion that what was needed was a network that would help everyday people find great programs, as well as to stay in touch with them and support them. Twtitter and Facebook aren’t designed to do this specifically, but they are great platforms we can build on top of thanks to Twitter and Facebook Connect.

Q: So social networks for the social sector that are built atop existing technologies? When will it be ready, and who is financing it?

A: We’ll have our beta launch by the end of the year. I’ve contributed personally, but we have a great team of backers, including Omidyar Foundation, Ford Foundation, [the John S. and James L.] Knight Foundation, and committed individuals.

Q: What happens now to your work with General Catalyst? What’s your role there?

A: General Catalyst has a phenomenal group of investors and I help try to connect great entrepreneurs with [their] capital. I’m full time at Jumo, though.

Q: Do you think expectations of Jumo, and of you, are reasonable, given your background?

A: I’ve been fortunate to be part of some really great institutions, Facebook and the Obama campaign, at a relatively young age. But — not to sound too clichéd — I feel like there are so many challenges in the word. There are a billion people who still live on less than a dollar a day. There’s no shortage of challenges that people should be taking on and that I would like to take on in my lifetime. So psychologically, I have the feeling I’m just getting started, but we’ll see how things go.

Q: Sorry to be obnoxious, but I’m guessing you’ve seen “The Social Network.” Any thoughts?

A: I did see the film. What I can say is that on the one hand, it’s great that they made a film about Facebook. On the other, it’s too bad it emphasizes a very Hollywood telling of the story, instead of what actually happened.

Q: How did you feel about the way that you were portrayed?

A: Thankfully, I only had three lines. I feel like I squeezed by relatively unscathed. [Laughs.]