"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."
Conner, who two years ago launched Facebook's Washington office out of his apartment and is now one of three employees in the company's Dupont Circle office, doesn't believe he's aiding the enemy. Conner believes that the savvier politicians become with social networking, the stronger democracy will be. "It would make no sense to cut out 50 percent of the country," he said. "It's better for us to have as many points of view. Facebook is not a partisan platform."
Yet, the company has political battles of its own to fight. Facebook recently hired Tim Sparapani, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, as its public policy director. Sparapani said Facebook's challenges in Washington are convincing some federal agencies that the site is secure, and overcoming allegations that Facebook is cavalier about its users' privacy. "Our mission in this office is helping Washington understand this new phenomena of social networking and translating Washington back to Silicon Valley," he said. "Adam's been a big part of that.
Sparapani says Conner's pro bono teaching will help if and when the company needs help dealing with federal regulators. "It is better to talk to people when you don't need them than to show up when you're in trouble," Sparapani said.
One of the trickier parts of Conner's job is helping members of Congress and their staffers figure out how to use Facebook without breaking ethics rules set by the House Committee on Administration. Members of Congress and staffers, for instance, may not use a member's "campaign" Facebook page at the office, and must instead use a second Facebook page meant for official government use. To the average person, these pages are nearly indistinguishable.
Despite his affection for transparency, Conner has learned that some aspects of Washington life require discretion. Asked about White House restrictions on using Facebook, he says: "I can't go into details, but we're helping them solve some issues there."
Conner sometimes gets emergency calls. At around 9 one night earlier this month, Lt. Col. Kevin Arata, the Army's director of online and social media, discovered that someone was trying to impersonate him on Facebook with a fake account and was friending his wife and son. "I immediately got on Facebook to write Adam," Arata recalls. "He writes back within three minutes and then all the other pages were taken down."
A cautious response
But perhaps the hardest part of Conner's job is persuading cautious congressmen to reveal the oddball minutiae of their lives.
In his meeting with Roskam, Conner tries to motivate his student with the example set by actor Vin Diesel of "Fast and Furious" fame. "The most popular page on Facebook is the actor Vin Diesel," Conner says. "It used to be Obama. How did an actor become more popular than the president? The answer is that he spends a lot of time putting up personal posts. He'll put up pictures from his travels and answer questions about his movies."
Roskam, who updates his campaign and official Facebook pages along with his staffers, isn't so sure about following Conner's advice and posting items about his mundane doings. " 'I am going to the dry cleaners' -- that's not interesting," the congressman says. "I am trying to think of what is interesting from a personal connection. 'Going over to the Ways and Means Committee'? You're sensing a little caution in my voice, because you really don't want to be that guy."
What about responding to people's comments on your Facebook wall? "That is running, whereas I am more at the creeping stage," says Roskam, who as of late Tuesday had not updated his pages' walls with his own messages since early December.
As his meeting with Conner wraps up, Roskam and his chief of staff, Steven Moore, recall how Facebook helped secure younger voters in the 2008 election. "We spent $60,000 on radio ads, and about $3,000 on the Internet," Moore says. "If I had known that information going in, I would have doubled down."
"Well, feel free to spread the word to other campaign managers," Conner says.
Roskam likes what he sees in the Facebook pitchman, even though Conner is a Democrat. "There you go!" he says, extending his hand to Conner. "What a closer."
via The Washington Post.