UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

What is the Evidence Suggesting About Facebook?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 Oct 2008

In a recent comment Mike Elllis reflected on the meaning of technology, where the complexity comes from, and what the bits under the hood bring to the party. Mike concluded “My take is: users aren’t just quite important, really important or reasonably vital: they are everything, bar none.

If you accept this proposition how should you respond to what appears to be the continuing popularity of Facebook? A quick snapshot of my friend’s status indicates that my Facebook friends are regularly updating their status, using a variety of mechanisms, with Twitter users automatically updating their Facebook status via Twitter.

Meanwhile Ruth Page on her Digital Narratives blog has written a post entitled “Facebook Fresher’s group: Success story“. In a review of the induction week at Birmingham City University (BCU) Ruth states that:

One of the great things has definitely been the take up and use of the Facebook group for the Freshers. At the beginning of the week we had 62 students joined up, and at the last look, 84 students out of an intake of around 120. But the numbers aren’t everything – it’s how the students evaluated it.

She goes on to add that the students:

loved the fact they could make friends with their fellow students before they even got here. That made a huge difference on the first day when it was so much easier to strike up conversations. But they also really appreciated the fact that they could ask questions and get the clarification they needed before arriving. Some of this came from me, but some of it also came from the students too, especially our student mentors who played a brilliant part in offering advice and encouragement from a student perspective.

Ruth concluded by saying:

The strength of using Facebook is that many of the students are already using it. I wasn’t asking them to take on yet another new form information, but tapping into a forum they are already familiar with. And, as a social networking site, that is what it is best at: encouraging friendships and connections that build the social cohesion so important for good progression and retention.

Now many IT developers and policy makers don’t like Facebook. I’ve heard comments along the lines of it’s a fad; it’s a walled garden; it’s commercial; it’s partly owned by Microsoft; the terms and conditions are unacceptable; …

These comments do have an element of truth to them. But if the users are willing to use the service, then maybe, as Mike suggests, these issues about the ‘behind the scenes’ factors simply aren’t as important as they are made out to be.

On the other hand, as Stuart Smith has commented, perhaps “variety is good” and although from “a user perspective the system doesn’t matter … from an educational grand plan perspective then lack of choice in education is limiting“. Stuart then goes on to argue that “We need to be careful that we don’t become populist for the sake of it, simply adopting systems because they are in mass use. Ideally we should consider why they are popular and then ask if they have educational value.

Facebook vs Twitter usage statisticsNow Stuart is right to acknowledge that popularity can be a factor. Back in April 2008 in a post entitled Facebook Or Twitter – Or Facebook And Twitter I responded to those who were arguing that Facebook’s popularity was on the wane by showing a graph comparing Facebook usage with that of Twitter which demonstrated that that Facebook usage wasn’t in decline. And the latest figures demonstrate that Facebook’s popularity is continuing to grow at a much greater rate than Twitter’s as illustrated (with a graph available on

But in avoiding being ‘populist for the sake of it, simply adopting systems because they are in mass use‘ don’t we face the danger of being elitist, and prioritising our view and our prejudices over the preferences of the users? And let’s remember that organisations can change – indeed as Andy Powell has just commented in a post on Thoughts on FOWA:

And finally… to that Mark Zuckerberg interview at the end of day 2.  I really enjoyed it actually.  Despite being well rehearsed and choreographed I thought he came across very well.  He certainly made all the right kinds of noises about making Facebook more open though whether it is believable or not remains to be seen!“.

What’s your take on this debate?

8 Responses to “What is the Evidence Suggesting About Facebook?”

  1. Mike said

    Putting it simply: 100 million users can’t be wrong.

    And if they are, who cares?


    • philipchallis said

      The fact is that Facebook sees more pages viewed than Google and as a marketing tool Facebook is definitely taking off. Google are driving people awy from marketing on Google so Facebook is enjoying the new surge in interest.


  2. Marieke Guy said

    I think the techies don’t like Facebook purely because it’s mainstream.

    It’s just like when you were younger and you liked a band but soon as everyone else started liking them they weren’t ‘cool’ anymore.

    Maybe it’s time for IT developers and policy makers to grow up and accept that Facebook works for a lot of people…and that’s what counts.

  3. Iphigenie said

    Facebook was built for students, so it indeed works superbly for students – especially at the beginning, to find out about your classmates in the first weeks or even before you get there. And it also works superbly well at the end, to keep loosely in touch with the 99% of people you like well enough, but dont like enough to make the huge effort to actively keep in touch with. It was designed just for that, and it does that quite well.

    That “keeping in (loose) touch” part also works for everyone, and is what carried facebook to success.

    Now to the dislikes:

    The bit that many people dislike in facebook is the signal to noise ratio – it has gotten appalling. Now professionals with jobs they enjoy don’t have a lot of time to waste and as a result they resent the constant bombarding by apps designed to take advantage of the system. Which makes them look down on it a bit, because they feel they shouldnt have to wade through the muck just to keep in touch.

    In a way the more you like your job and are well matched and qualified for it, and the less you can allow yourself to get distracted, the more likely you are to be unhappy with the current state of facebook. The reverse is also true, the more your day job or day time activity is unstimulating, the more likely you are to be enjoying and contributing to the noise of quizzes and apps. After all it still beats TV.

    I hear many people telling me they go less often to facebook because of the food fights and zombie contests and “what abba song are you” questionnaires.

    From the interview at FOWA it was extremely clear that this is accepted and a concern at facebook. A lot of the changes coming up with the new application platform and with further filtering have been made to reverse that signal to noise ratio and applications which rely on your friends spamming you will pale compared to applications which create content and communication.

  4. I’m an IT developer and I quite like Facebook, enough to write the code for two applications for it at least (Course Profiles and My OU Story). It is fantastic for students that they have a way to meet each other before even starting in a university and has provided some great opportunities for the HE sector to engage with students outside of its natural comfort zone of systems it controls. I don’t see what is wrong with people throwing zombies at each other either, if that makes them happy. Although I am reluctant to believe that reservations about Facebook are only expressed by “IT developers and policy makers” in HE. I would say though that people should think through the advantages and disadvantages of using the Facebook platform with an open mind and be aware of the possible issues that operating in a “walled garden” could bring, not just dismiss them because of who raised it.

  5. […] Kelly recently resurrected the debate about Facebook and its use in an HE context. I know he’s on the road at the moment so I suspect he dipped into his blog post […]

  6. I started to comment on Brian’s post a couple of times – especially with Mike and Marieke’s comments in mind, but failed to come up with something concise and insightful. However, Paul Walk’s post inspired me to try again.

    I think Marieke is right in that there is a movement against Facebook just because it is mainstream (in the same way we get anti-Microsoft sentiment I think). However, as Liam says I’m also not convinced that it is just techies and policy makers who are anti-Facebook. I also think that the reasons why people are anti-Facebook doesn’t necessarily invalidate their criticisms (e.g. closed platform).

    What is true (and perhaps more importantly, as it is a general point) is that certain groups of people (and I’d say the ‘digitally literate’ more than the ‘technical’) are aware of the problems of proprietary platforms, surrending of personal information etc. than others. I suspect that these people also tend to come across (even if it is unintentional) as patronising to others – ‘we know what is best for you’ – and this is always offputting.

    I’m reasonably sure that Mike is aware his argument doesn’t stand up completely, but has some power behind it. I wouldn’t argue against the usefulness of Facebook – I use it myself because it is great for keeping in touch with a group of friends (generally but not exclusively friends rather than colleagues for me) that use it. However, the fact that I and millions of others like it doesn’t mean it isn’t without its dangers – I like lots of things that are bad for me (like cream cakes). The answer to ‘who cares’ is in the end ‘they will’ – if they feel their data has been abused, or they lose access.

    We all need to become digitally literate (whatever that means – which needs discussion as well – see this post by Andy Powell, and more recent post by Josie Fraser at, and so be confident in making decisions about the services we use and understand the pros and cons.

  7. Mike Ellis said

    Conversation continues over on Paul Walk’s blog…

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