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Revisiting Development Of Facebook Applications

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 Aug 2008

I recently commented that I was pleased to see that the JISC-funded EDINA service was engaging with a number of externally-hosted Web 2.0 services in order to “improve engagement with their user communities”. In my post I made an observation on the release of a Facebook application (one which provides access to the Suncat service). I was pleased to see that EDINA are willing to explore the potential of Facebook for providing a platform for accessing their service – in some circles Facebook is regarded as unacceptable, perhaps because of concerns over data lock-in and privacy concerns, but also on what might be regarded as ‘ideological grounds’. My view is that if such applications can deliver useful services to the users in a cost-effective manner, then that will probably be acceptable.

In response to my post Nicola Osborne, a developer at EDINA, commented:

If anyone has comments on the search app or features that should be added we’d be very keen to hear them as the gradual migration over to the new version of Facebook seems like a good time to reassess how our app is working and could be improved and expanded (it’s very basic at the moment).

Nicola’s comment is very timely as I think there is a need for a debate on exactly what it is we (developers and users) might expect from the development of such Facebook applications. We will also need to consider the resource implications in developing such applications and the longer term maintenance and support costs. 

The Facebook page for the Suncat page is shown below. It should be noticed that as well as the search interface itself (shown at the bottom of the image) the page also provides information about the service, allows users to become ‘fans’ of the application, provides a ‘minifeed’ of information about the application and has a ‘wall’ which provides a forum for user comments. What this would seem to provide is an open environment for discussions about an application and mechanisms for potentially for making contact with fans of the application.

If we look at the Copac Facebook application page developed by the JISC-funded MIMAS service we can see a related approach. Here we can see how the application can be added to (embedded within) other Facebook pages. I can also see my Facebook friends who have added this application. And as, in this case, the people shown are people whose views on digital library applications I trust this can potentially help me in deciding whether to install the application. And if, for example, my Facebook page is updated with a message saying that 50 of my friends have installed the Copac or Suncat application I’m likely to wonder what I’m missing. And if I install the application this may influence my Facebook friends. So the viral marketing aspect has the potential to enhance usage of a service which is made available in Facebook.

But if you actually use either of these application you will find that the experience is rather disappointing. Once you’ve entered a serach term and pressed submit you then leave the Facebook environment and are taken to the Suncat or Copac service. You do not have the seamless environment within Facebook you might expect.  And your use of of the service does not have any ‘social’ context – if you have installed the application you are not informed of the numbers of your friends who have searched for a particular item. And you might be relieved at this, as you may not want your friends to see what you have been searching for. But if this is the case, if searching isn’t actually a social activity, what then is the point of providing the service within a social networking environment such as Facebook?

The answer to this question may be that the marketing aspects that social networks can provide is regarded as beneficial to the organisation developing the service. And as we have seen with popular applications such as Firefox large numbers of users are sometimes willing to associate themselves with an application (and I’ve just noticed that the Twitter application page in Facebook has 10,106 fans).  So perhaps a decision to develop a Facebook application would be one made by the marketing group for a service. Or perhaps there is an expectation that a thriving support service can be developed within popular social networking environments, in which case the decision would be made by those involved in providing the support infrastructure for a service.

But perhaps, based on the experiences I’ve had, we shouldn’t expect too much in terms of the functionality which a Facebook application can provide.  Is this a limitation of Facebook as a platform, or is it simply that, as Nicola has said about the Suncat application, the service is still very basic at present and EDINA are still exploring how the application might be developed? Or might Facebook applications have a useful role to play, but only in certain application areas. Earlier this year Seb Chan, on the blog described the Artshare Facebook application, developed by the Brooklyn Museum (one of the pioneers in a number of uses of Web 2.0 services). As Seb described:

This allows you to add selected objects from museum collections to your Facebook profile. These object images then link to your museum’s collection records, the idea being that people can effectively ‘friend’ objects in your collection, promote them for you on their profiles, and drive traffic back to your website.

Are the benefits, then, in providing access to objects which can, in some way, drive traffic back to your service? Or could Facebook provide an environment for games which provide educational benefits (Scrabulous for remedial English teaching, perhaps?)  But are there any significant benefits to be gained, apart from the marketing aspects, from providing search interface to services from within Facebook?

12 Responses to “Revisiting Development Of Facebook Applications”

  1. Hi Brian Find the whole is ‘Facebook worth it’ type discussion interesting. I agree it is encouraging to see experimentation. These systems are too new for anyone to yet they say they have no learning or research value and unless we try I don’t think we will find out. I’ve been experimenting with the Mimas hosted Hairdressing Training service and Facebook for a while now. I’ve been using IFrames to grant access to a content profile. So this is quite different to the search approach. A user doesn’t have to leave the Facebook frame to use the service but because it is authenticated they do have to enter a separate username and password, so that’s my biggest stumbling block at the moment. It’s all very experimental but though I would throw it into the melting pot!

  2. Whether ‘Facebook’ is worth it or not is clearly a decision that individual services need to make, but there are always going to be venues that are just ‘not worth it’ – that isn’t to say they couldn’t be useful or exciting, but that you simply aren’t going to see a return on the investment you make in bringing your service to that venue.

    This suggests to me a different approach is needed – it isn’t about developing a ‘Facebook App’ for your service, but making it possible to build a Facebook App for your service. And a Second Life interface. And a Twitter interface. Etc.

    Once we have this, we need to nurture communities who are interested in building on top of our applications – and this will drive development of specific applications that work in a way the community want.

    As organisations, we are only ever going to have a limited amount of resource to develop for the ‘next big thing’ – and we are bound to target the use of that resource very carefully. What we aren’t doing successfully at the moment is managing to exploit ‘the crowd’ to do this work for us.

    So although I think that it is great that COPAC and SUNCAT are on Facebook, I think they should have first implemented a well documented (RESTful?) API that was publicly accessible. Other implementations should then be built on top of that – either as demonstrators, or where the return on investment makes it worth it.

  3. Mike said

    Owen hits the nail on the head. Would be much more worthwhile building RESTful access and worrying about the application development after that.

    I may be missing something, too. This looks like it is a search box which POSTs to a 3rd party site…? Is that a Facebook “application”…?

  4. Mike said

    and WHAT are those URL’s ?????


  5. Mike said

    I’ve even broken Brian’s blog with them now…


  6. Paul Walk said

    Absolutely agree with Owen. While the SUNCat team can be applauded for seizing an opportunity to market their service, Facebook itself adds nothing beyond this to the service.

    To answer Brian’s question, this is marketing. Period.

    Whether or not it is worth the candle in marketing terms is not something we can easily judge at this point, but the development of this kind of Facebook application does not demand too many resources, so if it attracts a few more users then all well and good.


  7. The Mimas service (Hairdressing Training) I have brought on to Facebook, wasn’t about marketing. It was about the potential for user engagement. The target audience, NVQ students are more likely to use the web for social than learning purposes. So this was to see if it was technically feasible and cost effective. (The answer is yes in both cases but authentication remains an issue). Certainly the Facebook API isn’t particular demanding and that is in the public domain and is available for all to use.

  8. Brian raises an interesting question in his blog post above regarding the usefulness of Facebook applications in general and of search applications, including our own, in particular. In general I think the release of Facebook 2 is, in part, admission of the fact that profiles cluttered with app boxes can become unusable and that requires all of us Facebook app developers to reconsider what we’re doing. The example idea of Scrabulous for remedial English teaching is great but highlights how some services are better suited to innovative social apps than others. However even a social app for searching can be useful (albeit at a basic level) and there is a strong expectation that you should have a presence on Facebook and the like now that they are in such widespread use not only by users but by organisations and academic groupings (formal or otherwise)

    I think Paul’s comment about the fact that we have used our SUNCAT app as a form of marketing is pretty fair. Our initial impetus in getting a basic presence on Facebook was to address the idea of reaching out to potential new users where they are actually hanging out (bringing the mountain to Mohammad if you will). It is probably important to note that at the time of starting to build an app the debate about OpenSocial was just getting going whilst the user base of Facebook had reached critical mass and was growing fast. MySpace and Bebo did not have an API and usage stats seemed to indicate that Facebook was, in any case, more likely to hit the ages and types of people likely to be interested in SUNCAT. Thus it was decided to dip a first toe in the social networking water with Facebook.

    Facebook did not yet have pages for companies and organisations, just individuals so we started with one of these. But since a driver for getting on Facebook was to take SUNCAT to be where our users hang out (and since even our biggest fans don’t necessarily want to “Friend” a service) we decided we needed to do more. Giving users a simple way to remember SUNCAT is there and to quickly jump into the service seemed like a good plan so the current, very basic, SUNCAT app was born.

    As a marketing tool the app has been fairly successful as not only does it allow those that would already use the service to go to it directly from their Facebook page but it also makes their friends and colleagues aware of the service and their friend’s use of it through the profile boxes and/or through seeing who has installed the app in feeds.

    However we have always intended to add to the SUNCAT Facebook app and, as standards slowly seem to be taking shape, look into making it work on other social networking sites and deployable in other spaces such as, for instance, iGoogle. We have been looking at improvements we could make but we always need to consider, at the core, the question of what users actually want from SUNCAT. In the main people use SUNCAT for searching and browsing so finding anything more exciting to add to an app requires some lateral thinking and constructive feedback on potentially useful features.

    There are also important privacy and IPR issues implicit in a large trusted organisation releasing any features, something which doesn’t tend to apply to many of the young independent Facebook/ MySpace/ iGoogle etc. app developers creating perhaps more exciting apps at home with materials they may or may not have the proper rights to use. We also have to be wary of, for instance, encouraging lots of spam between users (as can happen in the many apps that encourage you to send app invites to all your friends in large batches) or otherwise straining trust in the service through, for instance, revealing searches made by peers.

    So in essence what I would like to ask in response to both Brian’s post as well as the previous comments, is what would actually be a welcome/useful addition to the ability to search in the SUNCAT app? Regardless of how or where such an app is/could be built I would be very interested in hearing what elements are felt to be missing that would be genuinely useful as we move forward with developing our web2.0 presence.

  9. Nicola,

    Everything you say here makes sense, but you don’t seem to have tackled the issue of releasing a documented API for SUNCAT rather than building apps in various venues like Facebook and iGoogle.

    I think you are right in saying some things are more suited to a social network environment than others – and also that it is often difficult to think of how the ‘end users’ will actually want to use aspects of the social network to enhance their use of the service. This is exactly why I think it would be useful to allow the ‘end users’ to get involved in developing the services – this goes beyond just asking what people want, and giving them the ability to do something for themselves.

    I’m not sure how far this blog reaches the main users of SUNCAT, so I’m not sure if this is the right place to ask what people want from SUNCAT, but a couple of quick ideas from me:

    ‘Bookshelf’ that allows you to save (and share) results from SUNCAT
    Virtual Study Group – post the details of a paper, SUNCAT provides local locations, virtual discussion of paper ensues

    To return to my axe and grind some more – actually mashing up SUNCAT information with information from other sources could be more interesting (show SUNCAT locations for a journal on Google Maps, combine citations from Google Scholar with SUNCAT holdings etc.) but I cannot see how these can emerge unless you make your data openly available, and work to build a community around it.

  10. Joy said

    Interesting stuff — what’s it really all about then?

    Is it about Marketing? Yes, probably. Here my perspective is different from my other Mimas colleague, Stuart. I’ve always been a bit cynical about the relevance for facebook apps for services like these. What would motivate someone to use it in that environment? Fred Stutzman makes a good point that these are ‘ego-centric’ networks and not ‘object-centric’ ones (and Lorcan Dempsey correlates this to a facebook/librarything distinction). What I put on my facebook app is about signifying my identity — and also my sense of belongingness to a particular group (which is why it might actually work for a group of people who are training to be hairdressers — they have much more specifically in common than ‘researchers who use Copac/SUNCAT’).

    My hunch is that people who put a Copac app on their facebook page are people like me, who are in the business and want to show they care (!) — not because I want to search it from my profile page. As Nicole says, iGoogle is a better place for such a widget, perhaps. (in the works, folks, honest).
    Right now, SUNCAT and Copac logos are like badges signifying allegiance. But is that all there is to it? Of course not — marketing does come into it, as there’s a certain currency around these apps right now, so build one and you might get noticed by the stakeholder community. You might even get blogged about, and this is not a bad thing these days as we all vie to get noticed and have some sort of currency in the field (Thanks Brian ;-)).

    But what if there’s more to it than that? We have found building this app relatively simple — a low risk and easy development. We didn’t have to make decisions about moving resource from one area to another to get this done, and if it did, we’d have to think much more carefully about doing it — like I say, I think it’s not the right space. But is was a quick and cheap win, and you never know, the experiment might reveal something to us (we’re still waiting).

    I think Owen’s questions speaks to the much larger and more messy development questions around personalisation, and these are areas we’re looking forward to grappling with at Copac in the next year (along with our colleagues at EDINA). An API for re-use and repurposing of data is one of them — I just wish it was as easy as a facebook app;-)

    I have more to say on this one, but you’ve inspired me to write something more lengthy on our development blog for Copac in the next week (yes. it’s got New Blog smell) (yes. that was shameless marketing:

  11. Hi Joy – many thanks for your comments; as you say, interesting stuff. And yes, what is it all about then? :-)

    I think one question we will need to ask ourselves is whether social networks such as Facebook, Myspace, etc. will continue to be only ‘ego-centric’. Back in November 2007 I wrote a post on UK Universities On Facebook, shortly after Facebook had announced that organisations could have a presence on their social networking service. And in June 2008 I wrote a post on Revisiting UK University Pages on Facebook/ in which I described how UK HEI Facebook pages seem to be growing in popularity. And we know that MySpace has not only provided an environment for people (‘ego-centric’) but also bands (‘object-centric’ perhaps?).

    I noticed that the Suncat Facebook application, for example, can be added to Facebook organisation’s pages – and I’ve added it to my Northgate Rapper page – and inappropriate page for the Suncat application, but as I don’t own a HEI page I’m using this page for testing purposes.

    The suggestion I’m making is that if organisational pages take off in Facebook, wouldn’t the availability of applications which reflect the needs of viewers of such organisation pages be useful?

    Finally I’d like to say how pleased I am that the Copac development team has launched a blog. It’s good to see such an open approach to development work being adopted at MIMAS.

  12. Owen Stephens wrote:

    “So although I think that it is great that COPAC and SUNCAT are on Facebook, I think they should have first implemented a well documented (RESTful?) API that was publicly accessible.”

    Speaking for Copac, we do have documented public APIs. Have a look at our Interfaces page. There’s an SRU interface and an OpenUrl Link-To Resolver interface. We also have an OAI-PMH interface which I blogged about recently.

    We have documented other interfaces in the past, though nowadays we only document the more ‘Standard’ interfaces. If the above interfaces don’t meet your needs, then feel free to email us (our contact details can be found from our home page) with your requiremwents and we’ll see what we can do.

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