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Archive for November 8th, 2007

Facebook Fears – It’s Nothing New

Posted by Brian Kelly on 8 November 2007

Alison Wildish has recently written a post on “Fear of Facebook?” in which she comments on a recent article in The Independent entitled “Networking sites: Professors – keep out“.  Alison says that

The article highlighted a number of perceived issues with University staff getting involved in social networks. However I tend to disagree with the majority of them!

I’ll not repeat her arguments, which I tend to agree with (and are supported in a post by Tony Keen). My take is that this is nothing new – IT developers have repeatedly had to respond to successful developments which have challenged their own development activities or beliefs in how successful software should be developed.  I’d suggest that in the UK HE sector this may go back to the 1960s, when the view of the development of a successful IT environment was based on a political policy of buying British – with UK Universities being required, if my understanding is correct, to purchase ICL mainframe systems (this was, of course, before ICL became a Japanese company, being bought out by Fujitsu).  In the late 1970s I studied at Newcastle University, where they were pleased at having procured an IBM mainframe which ran the MTS (Michigan Terminal System) operating system.

 In the Web environment, I can recall demonstrating the Web to a number of IT development groups in 1993 when I worked at Leeds University.  Rather than the look of excitement which I normally got at that time, on two occasions the response was more like fear – I subsequently discovered that the developers were, independently, working on distributed information systems, and realised that their software couldn’t hope to compete with the Web.

When I moved to Newcastle University in 1995 I came across another research group which was also involved in developing reliable secure distributed systems (Arjuna).  Dave Ingham, who presented a couple of papers at WWW conferences, told me back then that his research group would never have released the Web, as it was fundamentally flawed: links broke when objects were moved, the user interface was very chunky, there was, back then, no client-side scripting, etc.  However Dave and his colleagues also realised that, despite its limitations, the Web was a success and wouldn’t go away. They therefore adopted their research ideas to work in a Web context – and where so successful that the company they subsequently set up was eventually bought out by HP.

I think we’re revisiting a similar set of fears that popular Web 2.0 services (not just Facebook) are challenging IT development plans. However rather than simply asserting limitations and implying that these are the overriding factors (with the “Web links are easily broken” argument being updated with various concerns over privacy, rights and interoperability) I feel that we need to engage with successful widely used services. Perhaps we might find that just as the Web does suffer from broken links but users are prepared to accept this, users may be willing to accept certain limitations which may shock the purist developer.

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