For those still unplugged, online social networks are kind of a cross between a college commons and a high school homeroom where you never get in trouble for passing notes. Friends link to other friends, “poke” them as a means of greeting, and update their “status” to inform buddies about their mood or thoughts at any given moment. They are also politically active places. On Facebook, for instance, company officials estimate that half the users have declared political leanings. And beyond straight party activism, they said, more than 1 million users have signed on to groups that promote causes – from saving Darfur and cutting taxes to ending global warming. Yet fewer than 100 members of Congress operate sites on Facebook, although the Palo Alto-based company has made it easy by creating pages for all federal officeholders. Even fewer use MySpace, which boasts nearly 100 million users. WASHINGTON – California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher was baffled when asked recently about his use of the popular online gathering site Facebook. “Faith book?” replied the Republican from Huntington Beach. Rohrabacher is hardly the only lawmaker oblivious to the social-networking craze. While presidential candidates have been making online buddies on such sites as MySpace and Facebook for years, analysts say members of Congress have been slower to hook up to the digital phenomenon than dial-up users in a power outage. “There’s a trickle-down effect that comes into play when we look at how legislators use technology. The presidential campaigns use the shiny new tools first,” said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. Moreover, many of those who do use the sites have done little more than post biographical data. “This is a new age,” said Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Whittier, who actively uses her MySpace page and is the only Southern California lawmaker with one of the sites. “I think more members are starting to use it, but a lot of officials are still not focused on how it can be an important tool,” she said. When a bill Solis wrote preserving the legacy of labor leader Cesar Chavez came up for a hearing in March, for example, Solis didn’t rely only on traditional press releases to get the word out. She turned to the more than 300 “friends” she had accumulated via MySpace and Facebook. Like wildfire, she said, information about the hearing spread via e-mail blasts and blogs. Soon, even anti-Chavez bloggers were opining about the future of the bill. “It helped mobilize our people, too,” Solis said of the rapid-fire opposition. “It’s an exciting way to talk to people across the country.” Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, is the only other Southland member who uses his Facebook page. Officials with the site said they created pages for all federal officeholders as a part of a strategic initiative to galvanize youth political activism with Rock the Vote – as well as to prevent the creation of fake pages that use lawmakers’ names. The organizers then gave logon data to the Republican and Democratic national parties. “We decided to put resources against it because we felt it would become important, and we were right,” said Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly, noting that in the past election, the largest growth in voter turnout was among 18- to 24-year-olds, the primary users of social-networking sites. Still, he said, when his company approached political organizations, many were unsure what to make of it. Even now, some don’t use their Web sites very effectively. Pages that have not yet been claimed by lawmakers sport an American flag in place of a photo and are operating on autopilot. Indeed, lawmakers have collected hundreds of “friends” – Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, has 66 and Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Thousand Oaks, has 55 – without even being aware of it. Supporters such as Sylvia Wei, 19, of Thousand Oaks, who listed herself as a Gallegly backer because she agrees with the congressman’s tough position on illegal immigration. And Helene Sinnreich, who is from Ohio but lists herself as a supporter of Rep. Howard Berman, D-Van Nuys, because she is a lifelong Democrat and also friends with Berman’s daughter. Waxman said he started using Facebook at the behest of his tech-savvy staffers. “Many of the people who access it become a community of sorts,” he said. “I want to be part of the conversation.” Kat Barr, research director for Youth Voting Strategies, which works to boost political involvement among young people, called social networking “a hugely helpful medium” for local lawmakers. But she said the key is for lawmakers to figure out how to turn their online “friends” into voters – and ultimately into volunteers, donors and political organizers. “There’s a huge potential in reaching out to people in a big way. But it’s also important to combine that with substantive outreach,” she said. Social-networking experts noted that some members of Congress are using the sites in innovative ways. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, for example, has an application on his Facebook page called “Ask George,” on which he answers questions from members about the war in Iraq. North Dakota Democrat Rep. Earl Pomeroy started an online group called “Earl Jam” to stay connected with young voters. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi posts content about Democrats’ doings on the Hill on YouTube almost daily. Overall, according to social-networking experts and political analysts, Democrats seem to be taking to the tool quicker than Republicans. Among the 87 House members on Facebook, for example, 36 are Republicans while 51 are Democrats. At the same time, Republican National Committee online strategist Cyrus Krohn noted that there is a “critical mass” of Republicans among users of social-networking sites. And, of course, not all Democrats are social-network savvy. Berman is one such lawmaker who has not touched his Facebook page – despite the fact that his daughter, Lindsey, works for Youth Voter Strategies, has linked herself as a “supporter” on her father’s page and has encouraged many of her friends to do the same. “It’s ironic, because he’s probably the best expert on copyright and patent reform,” Lindsey Berman said of her father, who serves as chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property. But, she added, “He also doesn’t have a BlackBerry.” Germany said it might take a while for local lawmakers to realize the potential of networking sites. “There’s a lot of political activity and online issue involvement,” she said. “But if you don’t see that, it looks like just another place to get a date.” [email protected] (202) 662-8731160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!