UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Facebook and the Institutional Web

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 Jun 2007

One of the advantages that use of a social networking environment such as Facebook can provide is the ability to see the Facebook applications that one’s peers are deploying. This was how I spotted that John Kirriemuir had added the UIUC Library Search application to his Facebook account.

What does this do?” I wondered, before deciding that it was worth investing about a minute of my time to find out. So I installed the application and voila:

So I now have a simple interface for searching the UIUC Library catalogue. Not much use for me, here at the University of Bath – but potentially very useful for students (and staff) at UIUC.

Should we be doing something similar within our own institutions, perhaps providing search interface not only to the library catalogue and other local services but also to national services such as Intute? Some might argue that this is unnecessary as a search interface is available on the service’s Web site and that developing additional interfaces for platforms such as Facebook)will require additional effort. I would disagree with the first part – I feel we should be making our data and services available where our users are and expecting them to come to our services may be risky. On the issues of the effort needed to do this, well we need to explore how much effort is required. Perhaps work which can be linked to the IWMW 2007 Innovation Competition? Anyone fancy developing Facebook applications which provide access to a range of JISC services?

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16 Responses to “Facebook and the Institutional Web”

  1. Hi Brian. Funnily enough I was thinking a few days ago at having a go at exactly what you suggested here after I spotted the UIUC in your list of added facebook apps. I agree Facebook is really good for this sort of thing.

  2. Hmmm… I think I’m losing the plot!

    Embedding a search interface to a library catalogue (or anything else for that matter) turns Facebook into a portal doesn’t it? I *hate* portals – in any shape or form.

    Trying to turn Facebook into a portal misses the point about what Facebook is all about.

    Facebook isn’t a portal – except insofar as it is a portal to information about me and my social network (such as it is!). Nearly everything on my Facebook page is essentially there to tell other people about me, about what I’m doing, about what my interests are, about what music I like, about what books I’m reading, …

    How does adding a search box to my Facebook page help with that? Answer: it doesn’t!

    An application that allows me to say “this is what I’ve borrowed from the library recently” or “these are the journal articles I’m reading” makes some kind of sense in the context of Facebook.

    But a search box doesn’t make any sense at all… does it?


  3. I can sort of see Andy’s point, though I’m not sure what Facebook is all about still. Paradoxically, the more I’ve used it, the less sure I am of what it is supposed to be (or be for), as it borrows elements of various person, content and service-centric online things. Suspect that good psychologists will give us the best answer as to what Facebook is.

    Putting on my commercial hat, if you look at it from a marketing perspective, it does make some sense to at least try the odd library search application. Make the application. Then hope that various people who have large clusters of potential library users put the application on their Facebook page. It raises the profile of the service. Also, if the app is hardly taken up, or people install then uninstall it (not sure if facebook give out this kind of stats to app developers), then maybe it isn’t right for the Facebook environment.

    If it’s not taking up a lot of resource to make the app, it’s interesting for an experiment or prototype anyway (a bit like e.g. the GardenGate cross-service ROADS searcher that came out of IMESH)(Martin is going to hate me for bringing that up :-).

    However, can see a danger here in lots of libraries suddenly developing identical searching apps. I notice that another one, the Hennepin County Library Catalog, is now available. Do we want to see Facebook pages with e.g. 30+ different library search mechanisms in a long list down them? Erm, no; that’s so 1998…

  4. Paul Walk said

    The thing that struck me about Facebook about a year ago when I had brief dalliance with it was that the interface seemed incoherent. I was a leading an institutional portal development project at the time, so my views on this were very likely coloured by that awful experience. Now I’ve looked at Facebook again in the last few days it seems….incoherent….but it works nonetheless, in a subtle way I haven’t yet really figured out.

    With regard to Facebook as a platform, I think the other shoe will drop when Facebook allows the user to build their own search box to whichever library(s) they feel like using. Yahoo Pipes has shown us the future!!! ;)

  5. Hi Andy
    Thanks for the comment – but you’ve got me confused. When you say “Embedding a search interface … turns Facebook into a portal. And [you] don’t like portals” my initial response is “am I bovvered?” If you wouldn’t like a search engine in your Facebook page, then don’t add it.
    When you say “Facebook isn’t a portal”, I would agree but argue that Facebook was originally a social network (as you say) but can now be regarded as a platform which can be used to build or deploy richer services. And some of these services could transform the nature of the Facebook social network to the Facebook social networked portal environment, containing not only things about me (my interests, my favourites books, etc) but also the things that I use. And rather than having them trapped on my desktop PC or my Firefox extensions (which i can’t reuse easily elsewhere) they’re in my preferred Web environment, which may be Facebook.
    Or then again, maybe not. But the Facebook platform may provide us with an opportunity to test out such suppositions, possibly at a low cost (which is why I’m suggesting it would be useful to explore the resource implications for doing this).
    We need evidence, rather than you and I discussing whether this will fly or not.


    PS I recently discussed with Paul the potential benefits of providing an interface to the Hero portal to UK universities for Facebook as many 6th formers (I’ve been told) use Facebook to chat about which University to go to. That might be an interesting experiment (and obviously there are lots of possible reasons why such an approach might not work. But what if it did?

  6. Good news; the discussion board for the UIUC library search has links to the code and various other helpful info:

    The code appears to be adaptable; that’s what Hennepin did.

    It’s a pity it’s June and the wrong time of the year to get students in to do short projects, else developing some useful Facebook apps would have been attractive.

  7. I can see Andy’s point as long as I think of Facebook as a purely personal tool. But I also use Facebook in my professional life which includes facilitating or scaffolding independent library usage by adult learners or families in family literacy programs. So, having a search box app for our local library provides me with one more way to promote learning.


  8. @Brian Yes, fair point… let the market decide. Can’t argue with that :-). On the other hand, I still don’t feel comfortable with it. If a library search app is right, then presumably so is an Amazon search app and a Google search app and a… omg, is that really what people want inside fb?

    @Wendell Note sure I completely get the point about personal vs. professional? I use fb for both. In any case, why is an embedded library search more appropriate for one or the other – I use libraries equally in both – err… i.e. almost not at all. (Which is to my shame BTW).

  9. “Facebook… can now be regarded as a platform which can be used to build or deploy richer services”

    A lot of people have said this. I don’t buy it. Show me.

  10. Speaking from my own personal experience Facebook initially started out as a social network but I don’t view it as “just” that anymore. Whilst I’m not convinced a library search box is the most useful app within Facebook I think developing and deploying our own apps would be really useful. An app for University announcements would be really beneficial as we could serve information to students in their social space. Also updated feeds from the VLE could draw them back into teaching and learning activity.

    Facebook will be whatever people want it to be. I’m still unsure how to define it myself but I think it will move far away from it’s original aim with the developer platform in use.

  11. Tim Boundy said

    I don’t think it really matters if we think that Facebook is a suitable place to find a library search box. What they are doing is providing another option in an evolving network/environment. We should commend the attempt to engage students using the platform/web site/network where they already interact.

    I too agree that the market will obviously decide if the search box is useful (out-of-place or not). If useful it will be used and if not it will probably disappear. It also really doesn’t matter if we refer to Facebook as a platform or a portal or anything else. In a wonderful way it will be whatever the members want it to be, unless a commercial element manages to creep in somehow, or at least escapes from the advert bar. I bet they’re chomping at the bit.

  12. Facebook IS just a social network. Not that this is a bad thing but that is what it is. Why? Simply: this is what the users are actually using it for.

    What difference does the whole Facebook Apps thing make? Let’s be clear, you are the ones deciding this makes a difference, the users have not expressed a desire for this or is there any evidence this is the case. In fact, the successful Facebooks Apps to date have all been social interaction related, either there to display more information about yourself to your friends (eg. Photos, Where I’ve been or even Your Stripper Name) or are there to add more fun/methods of social interaction (eg. SuperPoke, Zombie). So, even with all these applications, it is still *just* a social network.

    Why are we even going down this path? The argument seems to be that suggesting that students use Facebook and Facebook alone, but that couldn’t be further from the truth – students tend to have multiple sites open in multiple tabs with Facebook in one tab, the VLE in another, Gmail in another and so on, multiple applications like Instant Messengers and Word, all at the same time. As digital natives, they are used to dealing with multiple tools – and choose the right tool for the right job. They might be using Facebook more, but “student prefers to socialise than anything else” is hardly a ground breaking fact.

    Lastly, if you consider what has happened at Keele and Oxford, it seems pretty obvious that the students are not happy with the Universities actually infiltrating their community. I think as Universities, we should leave Facebook well alone, its not our domain to mess around in…

    Read some of these quotes, for example:,,2128269,00.html

  13. Hi Mark
    It’s clearly true that users will use multiple applications when it’s not possible to integrate them. However now that it is possible to integrate them in Facebook, we’ll have to see if this changes.
    And I recently heard anecdotes of students (and schoolchildren) who complain when their students aren’t making their stuff available in their preferred social networking environment. Indeed at the StarGazing Conference I spoke at in Edinburgh last November the two student speakers expressed a design for their lecturers to provide RSS feeds which could be integrated into their preferred environment.

  14. RSS feeds are an example of where exactly where we should be going. Its about creating content, adding value to our content. That’s a million miles from talking about Facebook Apps. Ultimately, externally to the University, we should be talking about how and what content we make available, whereas here we are effectively talking about what services we make available.

    As the talk is of services, people talk about what they know and as such, web developers see Facebook as an external portal, with channels that offer nothing more than the internal portal, just ported externally because, apparently, that’s where the students want it (despite the lack of evidence).

    Why are we prescribing Facebook as the “preferred environment” when there is ample evidence it is anything but? I don’t think we should – we should make the content available but also not move away from development of services on our own site. Ultimately, maybe someone will use that data. Your colleague, Paul Walk, says it best on his weblog: “The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else”.

    As for the presentation by the students at Edinburgh, here’s their presentation:

    To me, especially with what they say about Personal Email and how they describe Facebook, it looks like they don’t want us in their social spaces…

  15. Hi Mark
    Who is “prescribing Facebook as the ‘preferred environment'”? From what I’ve seen people are exploring the possibility of surfacing data and services within Facebook as well as from the original source. This seems to be the approach taken in MyNewport.

  16. […] by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on July 16th, 2007 Andy Powell commented on a blog post on Facebook and the Institutional Web I published recently which he followed up in a post on Facebook application growth which described […]

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