Thursday, 31 May 2007

Facebook: Social Networking grows up?

I'm not a great fan of the more talky social networking systems. By these, I mean services where you create a presence, link in friends, and add various media, join online interest groups and the like.

MySpace for me is a case in point. It seems to have been created in the University for the Aesthetically Challenged, possesses unintuitive navigation, and requires the volume to be turned down to avoid automatic, and usually very loud, music. Social networking should be a pleasant experience. I should not have to squint to avoid blood red flashing backgrounds while desperately hunting for wherever the various messaging functions have been moved to. I've also been propositioned by weirdo strangers on MySpace, who were either very keen, very desperate, or didn't note first where exactly I lived and the cost of the air fare here.

So it's not my cup of darjeeling. Maybe if I was a teenager - or does thinking that give me a snobby "Just for the kids, not for the grown-ups" mentality?

But, along comes Facebook...


Originally, facebook in the UK was a closed system, known for being mainly used by toffs at posh colleges to leave "Yah! Daddy has a marquee at Henley Regatta this weekend - super!!" type messages on. At some point more recently, the system was opened up so anyone could join.

In the US in particular, Facebook is big. From the Wikipedia entry:

"As of February 2007, the website had the largest number of registered users among college-focused sites with over 25 million members worldwide (also from non- collegiate networks). Facebook is the eighteenth most visited site throughout the world, and is the number one site for photos in the United States, ahead of public sites such as Flickr, with over 8.5 million photos uploaded daily. It is also the sixth most visited site in the United States."

I'd never given Facebook a thought until last week, when I got two friend requests. One was from a local with virtually no listed friends, the other from a Norwegian who seems to have listed half the people in her country.

So, I joined, accepted the requests, and sent out a few more to various people from my present and past.

Less than a week later, there are 56 people linked to my Facebook profile. This I was not expecting. So, time to experiment more.

Things I like about Facebook so far:

  • Applications - additional functions that you can add on at will. These remind me of Wordpress plugins; they offer a wide range of additional functionality, are of variable quality and robustness, and variable use. For example, I've got my most recent Flickr pictures mashed-up at the bottom of my Facebook page, and there's a log of forthcoming trips and events on there where I'll hook up with other Facebook folk.

  • Clear, crisp and readable. So not MySpace.

  • No spam and no stalkers. So far.

  • It's easy to add as little or much information as you want. Some chums have stuck loads of stuff on their profiles  whereas some of my other colleagues, peers and whoever have the minimum amount.

  • Easy to alter what information is public, and what is private.

  • It's helped a lot to remind me of where I've been (work wise) and who else was there, mainly in the seven universities I've either studied, researched or worked in.

  • Through looking at their profiles, I've discovered some social stuff that's of interest when I meet up with some folk later this year.


But above all I like the fact that it's full of "my kind of people" and "my kind of conversation". Within this first week I'm already in negotiation with another Facebook user over potential paid work, and I've had an invite to speak at an event. Private messages, and public wall writings, are readable and positive. I have exchanged short messages, had useful conversations, and longer dialogues. Conversation is so not YouTube.

"Friends of friends" are strangely fascinating. I wasn't aware of quite a few mutual friends until I had a gander through other people's lists. Out of my current 56, one person (Brian) has 12 mutual friends. I'm not sure what this means - if anything - apart from Brian possibly being my evil twin?

Most surprisingly of all is that 10 of my 56 are local people. This has never happened before. Residents of the Outer Hebrides are extremely reserved when it comes to leaving a named (as opposed to hidden or anonymous) online footprint. Most households out here are online (for getting goods it's pretty much a necessity) so this lack of named online interaction is probably a combination of the heavily related population, the utter viciousness of local politics [example 1] [example 2] and the fact that many residents are employed by a really small number of inter-dependant organisations.


Consequently, many adults here think you have to be careful - really careful - what you say. And it's often best to keep a low profile [nb it is notable that the kids here have the totally opposite view, research and parental anecdote showing that an extroadinarily high proportion use social network systems such as Bebo]. So it comes as a surprise that 10 locals have quickly signed up to be "Facebook" friends.

Looking at what the service offers; Facebook has also completely absorbed the functionality of quite a few other applications, such as Twitter. There's a status bar on every Facebook page that you can update with what you are doing (microblogging?) e.g. "Taking the dog for a walk" or "Microwaving my lunch" or anything else dull, mundane or dubious. Other web services, such as Friend of a Friend, have overlaps with the wider concept and functionality of Facebook.

Facebook as an alternative "desktop"? Not by a long way yet, but it's on the way. With applications such as voice talk, video conferencing, event organising, diary upkeep, calendar maintenance and many more, Facebook is a black hole, sucking in the functionality of other "Web 2.0" applications. How many of these Facebook will impact on we'll have to see; the crunch for them will be to sustain the growth in people signing up, especially amongst casual or non-users of social networks.

It isn't all good news. Facebook need revenue, so we have to put up with adverts. The "networks" function is a bit rubbish, covering mainly large cities (and the network for the Outer Hebrides is wrong as it reverts to Glasgow). The search function needs refinement and extra filtering options (try searching for a friend with a common name). Some people have concerns about the privacy and data collection methods of Facebook and similar services. It's yet another mailbox to check, along with my email, Flickr mail, and several other mail services I've probably forgotten about.


But so far, the usefulness and interest outweighs these cautions. Light bulbs have been going off in my mind regarding useful applications of Facebook. Librarians appear to be on it in strength (a reliable sign that there's something of deeper interest going on). The fact that other people can and are creating additional functionality also bodes well. Hmmmmmmmm. More investigation definitely needed, and I suspect I'm not the only one thinking of working up funding proposals regarding the application of Facebook to education, teaching and learning. Though with that many users to date, I guess (I haven't looked yet) that there's already been some research in this area.

Finally, maybe, there is now a social networking site that:

  1. is based around people and their real social networks

  2. looks quite good

  3. isn't full of inane people spouting inane conversation

  4. is very easy to use and configure

  5. has a growing number of add-ons, some with potential educational uses

  6. is expanding in terms of who is using it

p.s. my own profile on Facebook is here, and some links in this post require you to be signed up and/or friend-linked within Facebook.


  1. Hi John I enjoyed feeding your thoughts on Facebook. One challenge that you didn't touch on are the view of Facebook within institutions. I recently published a post entitledEmail IS Dying!, in which I suggested that the growth in popularity of social networking sites (such as Facebook) is resulting in a new generation of users who will regard email as us oldies now regard Usenet - a technology which may have ben used in the past, but is now effectively obsolete. Marc Sammons responded by pointing out a Register article on how use of Facebook has been banned at Keele University. Are we in for a fight over access to such services, I wonder.Your evil twin :-)Brian Kelly, UKOLN

  2. I wasn't too sure about Facebook but since signing up I've been able to keep in better contact with family members (for a while I was related to most of my contacts) plus get back in touch with a university friend. Worth noting that not many people who graduated from my university in 2001 are on it, maybe popularity drops off in your late 20s? I like the design but am also frustrated by networks. I can't join my old university networks as I don't have a university email address. Whilst I appreciate this may be a safety issue for those still at school, I think those of university-age can cope with it. Plus I can only be a member of one geographical network, I'd like to join a Yorkshire one as well as the Edinburgh one (pretty sure there isn't an Orcadian one as well!).Downside? Nauseating status updates from my evangelical Christian cousins and tons of photos of my university-aged sisters in various states of drunkenness. But no one is forcing me to look at them I suppose!

  3. doctorvee » ...Other social networks are dead (part 2 of 2)3 June 2007 at 08:35

    [...] Forgot to include a link to this post from a former social networks-skeptic who has joined [...]

  4. I hated Facebook to begin with, but I've grown to like it a lot over the last few months. I particularly like the fact that, for the most part, the people who drift along are people you've known (if often slightly), or people you're likely to find interesting. But I still love MySpace. Once I'd got over its vulgarity and brashness, I found it was great fun for meeting likeable people you would never normally have anything to do with. And I've tried to keep my profiles less unpleasant than most.A lot depends on how you use these sites. I use the Crap Public Schools Association profile on MySpace to promote a fun idea and promote my book ( I use my personal profile to keep up with friends who are bad at communicating in other ways, and for finding music I like ( And then there's my Facebook profile: course, the worst problem is that it's all incredibly time consuming...

  5. The psychology of Facebook at Silversprite4 June 2007 at 04:43

    [...] follow-up, this time on Facebook. This has been getting a lot of UK press of late, from consideration of how much it is worth, to [...]