UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

What Can We Learn From Facebook?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 18 Jan 2007


Before Christmas I received an email from someone wanting advice on social networking services to support a project. Initially I thought I was being asked for my opinions on blogging or wiki applications. However a phone call clarified the requirements, which was advice on the merits of different social networking services such as My Space and Facebook.

I had to confess that I have only limited experience of either of these environments. The question did make me reflect on who should provide such advice within an institution? If such services can be used to support the teaching and learning or research activities in an institution, shouldn’t there be some provision of advice and support? And even if such services are used for social purposes (which, of course, they are) why should that be a factor in ruling out a level of support? After all, email and the Web, in general, is used for social purposes.


In light of these musing, I decided I would try out Facebook – and, fortunately, the University of Bath has subscribed to Facebook, with currently 8,685 subscribers from the institution. (Note that, unlike many similar social networks, the institution, rather than an individual, needs to subscribe to the service – and the authentication is based on one’s email address). And a particularly note-worthy feature of Facebook is the integration across networks – there are many examples of friends spanning across universities (possibly friends from school or friends met at inter-collegiate activities, for example).

Profile Page

My profile page is illustrated. This has details of my friends together with a record of the date on which were selected (this struck me as rather cheesy – 9 Jan: “Brian and Pete Cliff are now friends“. And has for the double entendres of “Brian pokes Pete“. Ugh.)

A potentially very useful feature of the Mini-feed page is the ability to import RSS feeds, from blogs, for example.

The two key aspects of Facebook appear to be the network of people (friends) and participation in groups. Facebook users can join existing groups or set up a new group. The list of areas covered by the groups shows that Facebook is focussing on social aspects (with the possible exceptions of Business and Internet & Technology, none of the groupings covers academic disciplines.

Facebook; We Hate BUCS

Exploring the Internet & Technology section for the Bath network I discovered one use the service provides is to provide a forum for disgruntled users, with one group entitled “We All Hate BUCS” (BUCS being the Bath University Computing Services).

How should departments respond to such criticisms? Clearly it is not possible (not even desirable) to ban such discussions. Rather, I would argue, support services (in particular) may wish to visit Facebook (if their institution has subscribed to the service) and explore what students are talking about.

I would also argue that if students are spending significant amount of time using Facebook, then it is in the institution’s interest to ensure that they are using the service effectively. Perhaps advising students on a course how the RSS feeds related to the course can be embedded in Facebook would be a sensible approach to take.

A Radical Suggestion

Wikipedia has a comprehensive article on Facebook. The article claims that in April 2006 it was claimed that Facebook was making over $1 million per week in advertising revenue. If this is the case, we might ask ourselves whether institutions should spend tax-payer’s money in seeking to develop social networking services as part of an e-learning environment. Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to explore the possibilities of using services such as Facebook to support e-learning, rather than trying to compete with such a successful and profitable existing service?

Such a suggestion is slightly tongue-in-cheek (Facebook is lacking various features which would be desirable in a system used in a more formal learning context). But if students are making intensive use of Facebook, don’t we have to ask ourselves such questions?

7 Responses to “What Can We Learn From Facebook?”

  1. AJC said

    Yeah but no but:
    Institutions using “free” Web 2.0 services? Data security? Continutity of service? Possible future charges?
    Bigger problem: “work” intruding into students online social spaces. If I chat to my students on MySpace, am I their “friend”? Yes, I know these are not real friends (Friend 2.0), but my students send me a veey clear message that they wan “work” and social time to be separated, even if they are using the same tools in both.

  2. Hi Brian,

    Interesting post which I will mention to our “Web 2.0 posse” but in IE 7 at least, the graphic of the ‘Hate BUCS’ appears on top of some of the text. Seems to be a wee problem with WordPress? I’m sure you can fix it, and then delete this comment.


  3. AJC’s hit the nail on the head. It is something I have been wondering ever since the University of Edinburgh’s Web 2.0 seminar which you reported on this blog: Stargazing Conference.

    Brian, as you may recall, one highlight you mentioned was Paul Anderson asking a similar question, “Is the traditional model of providing central mail services, or diary services (for example) still appropriate?”. I couldn’t see where that loaded question was coming from. First of all you have the data integrity, data ownership, security and quality of service issues, but on top of that, a total headache to maintain everyone’s different Web presences (for instance, how does a lecturer keep up with all the email addresses of people in his class?).

    What AJC says regarding students wanting to keep work and social life seperate is absolutely correct. For example, if a student is emailing their lecturer, they will use their University account, if emailing their friend, use Hotmail/Gmail/whatever. In fact, if you recall, at the Stargazing Conference there were 2 students who gave a very good talk about Facebook. During the lunch, I actually asked one of them, “would you like to use your lecturers using facebook” and he said “no”.

    Why is Facebook so successful? When you join, you are added to the University community (or network as you call it). By that inclusion and then tools which significantly reduce the barriers to social networking, they encourage people to socially network with others in that community, and allow access to people in other communities.

    And that is in essence what we can learn from Facebook: communities and barriers.

    What is happening in Universities with Web 2.0 at the moment? A project/research group (for example) says “oh, we should keep our schedules in check, let’s use Google Calendar”. They have defined that group as their community. Meanwhile, somewhere else in the University, some other group says the same thing but uses Yahoo! Calendar. As Web 2.0 usage grows, what happens? Users start becoming members of several communities; in order to check whether Monday afternoon is free, they have to check the calendar of those who use Google, those who use Yahoo!, 30 Boxes, etc etc etc. In other words, there are significant barriers for them.

    If the University provides this service, they wouldn’t need to go to an external entity to get this facility. Furthermore, you need to define the community to reduce the barriers as much as possible. In the end of the day, that community is everyone in the University: staff, students, affiliated members, etc. That’s a key social aspect of Web 2.0, after all. Furthermore you want to base it on open standards to reduce the barriers who people working with people in other communities (other Universities).

    So, in my eyes, the answer to Paul Anderson’s question is simply, “Actually, Web 2.0 means we should be providing more, and more centralised, services”.

  4. Hi AJ
    Yeah but no but ... Such Pollardian dialectical discource is like SO last

    You are quite right to raise the issue of the possible dangers of reliance on ‘free’ third party Web 2.0 services, I’ve written a briefing document on “Risk
    Assessment For Use Of Third Party Web 2.0 Services
    and am currently writing a paper on this subject. I’ll return to this later.

    I’d also agree with your reservations over the overloading of the term “friend”. I think there are several areas in which there are significant cultural difference between the UK and the US, where many of these services are based. I can recall when I registered with wondering whether to select the option of ‘liberal’ (I read the Guardian) or ‘extreme liberal’ (perhaps for those who regularly write letters to the Guardian!).

    And yes, there is a need for a debate over use of online social spaces used by students for work-related purposes.

  5. voidstar said

    AJC makes a very good point on how people need to be able to represent their various real-life friends and colleagues as distinct social groups that you may or may not want to expose to each other. I would say that this is vital for any service that wants to mirror how people think about their social groups in real life. Most SN services don’t adequately deal with this. Instead they put the emphasis on the quantity of ‘friends’, not quality. You know the thing: “You have 31,583 friends in your network”. I wouldn’t imagine this is a useful approach for an academic institution when presumably the emphasis should be on achieving ‘real’ things with people that you have some genuine relationship with.

    This whole problem was the seed of a new service called phuser which I’ve been developing and which has just gone into beta trials. Much of the R&D time has in fact been spent in tackling the types of privacy and exposure issues that make most social networking sites inappropriate for personal interactions. When it comes to friends and colleagues in real-life, most people want to be able to keep their activities with the local nudist club separate from those of local Rotary club, even though there may be occasional overlap. Not only that, but people want to be able to control who can see who in their network, and who can contact who. This is something that has not really been dealt with adequately up to now, and which limits the possiblity of SN sites being anything more than a virtual/online pastime.

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