UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Planet Facebook Becomes Less of a Walled Garden

Posted by Brian Kelly on 8 Oct 2010

“Facebook Lets Users Download Data”

An article published in yesterday’s ZDNet announced that “Facebook lets users download data, create groups“. Soon Facebook users “will be able to go to their account settings and click a link to download all their data into a browsable zip file“.

On the DataPortability blog Steve Repetti felt that this news was “A step in the right direction, says vice-chair of the DataPortability Project“. His post began by pointing out that “Today’s announcement from Facebook represents the most important statement from them to-date regarding Data Portability. But to be clear, it is by no means the ultimate solution we all seek. Still, it represents major movement in the right direction.“and concluded “From a pure data portability perspective, there is still much more that Facebook can do, but I applaud their direction and effort. This is way more than PR, this is policy that has grown from within and is now escaping into the light. Today’s announcement is the beginning; the Sleeper is waking; and openness lives on with more on the way.

The DataPortability’s communications chair Alisa Leonard pointed out the good news: “they now allow more access to your data through the download feature” whilst reminding us that “the Facebook [terms of service have] not changed — meaning your data is still on their server and while you can download, you cannot remove your data entirely (if you wished to do so)“.

Whatever your views on this announcement it can’t be denied that we have seen significant growth in usage of Facebook since I pointed out that “Something IS Going On With Facebook!” in May 2007.

But in what ways has Facebook grown in popularity over the past three years and how have institutions been making use of Facebook over that period?

Facebook’s Growth

Back in July the front page of the Metro announced Planet Facebook, with an accompanying graphic informing readers that “Globally Facebook has 500 million users“, “26 million Britains use it (that’s more than a third of the population)“, “More than 3 billion pictures are uploaded every month … and there are more than 60 million a status updates a day” and “collectively users spend more than 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook“.  The headline accompanied the news that Facebook had passed 500 million users, almost 8% of the global population.

More recently an article in the Guardian recently pointed out that “Shareholder trading values Facebook at more than $33bn“. It seems that Facebook is worth nearly twice as much as Yahoo! Meanwhile another recent article in Hitwise tells us that “Facebook accounts for 1 in 6 UK page views, but is it reaching saturation point?“. This article informed us that Facebook is the second most visited website in the UK: in June it accounted for 7.14% of all UK Internet visits and over half (54.48%) of all visits to a social networking websites. In terms of total visits it continues to trail Google UK (9.59% market share in June) … However, using the measure of total page views rather than visits, Facebook is way ahead. … the social network accounted for 16.73% of UK page views during June. In other words: 1 in every 6 Internet pages viewed in the UK was a Facebook page.

Last month at a symposium on Web Science held the Royal Society Tim Berners-Lee “let slip an interesting observation. Many people, said the web’s inventor, no longer make a distinction between Facebook and the web“. This comment was made by John Naughton in a column published in The Observer on “A Flickr of interest…” who pointed out that “When it was announced a couple of weeks ago that Flickr, the photo-hosting site, had hosted its five billionth picture, someone pointed out smugly that Facebook already has over three times that number.” Meanwhile a Techcrunch article reveals that  “Facebook is Now the Second Largest Video Site in the U.S.”

The Observer article went on to point out that many photographs uploaded to Facebook tend to be very similar, and typically don’t have the impact of those provided on Flickr. I wouldn’t disagree with this. Facebook does have its limitations, It’s also true that Facebook isn’t universally liked, and there are many in, for example, the developer community who will point out concerns over Facebook’s cavalier approach to privacy and Facebook’s ‘walled garden’ which can suck content in but not allow content to be easily moved out of the environment – although that statement seems to have changed with the recent announcement that users will soon be able to download their data.

It is also worth pointing out that the Facebook statement on rights and responsibilities states that ‘You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook” whilst pointing out that (in order for Facebook to generate an income) Facebook users “specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook“.

Institutional Use of Facebook

Whilst criticisms of Facebook’s terms and conditions featured frequently across the  blogging community a couple of years ago there now seems to be a growing recognition that Facebook does have a role to play within our institutions. Facebook’s acceptance within the e-learning community struck me when I saw a tweet from Alan Cann about the Facebook pages for the ALT-C 2010 conference and the pages which have already been set up for ALT-C 2011.  Looking at the pages for ALT-C 2010 it seems to me that Facebook is being used as an aggregator of blog posts which are hosted in a more open environment. Such an approach can provide benefits for blog authors as it provides greater exposure to their content  and allows the virality of users ‘Liking’ the posts to reach out to people who are friends of those linking the content.

[NOTE Alan Cann has alerted me to the fact that ALT “have now decided not to have a separate page for each conference but to focus on to try to build a more enduring community“. Use this page if you’d like to participate rather than the two links I published initially].

And what of institutional use of Facebook?  In a report on CASE Europe’s recent annual conference Dan Martin summarised a talk by Alex Schultz, Internet Marketing Manager of Facebook by saying  “there is really no escaping the fact Facebook is the dominant force in Social right now, and that institutions can benefit from its reach and penetration“.

The way in which Facebook has taken off across the higher education sector can be seen gauged from various posts I’ve written over the past 3 years. Back in November 2007 I wrote a post on “UK Universities On Facebook“. Back then I reported that “A Facebook search for organisations containing the word ‘university’ revealed (on Friday 9 November 2007) a total of 76 hits” – the total is no longer easily found but is over 500. The post included a screen image of the Facebook page for the University of Central Lancashire which showed that the University had a total of 8 fans – today almost 8,000 Facebook users ‘like’ the Facebook entry.

The following year, in June 2008 I wrote a post on Revisiting UK University Pages On Facebook. This post provided the following summary of the UK University entries will the largest number of fans:

The Open University Facebook page is the top of all University pages, with 7,539 fans (with the University of Michigan way behind in second place with 5,313 fans (up from a count of 2,874 a month ago). The other most popular UK Universities are Aston University (2,976 fans), Royal Holloway (1,765), Aberystwyth University (1,655 fans), University of Central Lancashire (1,475 fans), Keele University (1,420 fans), Cardiff University (1,357 fans) and the University of Surrey (1,166 fans).

The figures today are the Open University Facebook page (liked by 28,949 fans), Aston University (liked by 8,445), Royal Holloway (liked by 9,093), Aberystwyth University (liked by 7,326), University of Central Lancashire (liked by 7,982), Keele University (liked by 6,716), Cardiff University (liked by 18,698) and the University of Surrey (liked by 8,063).

From these figures we can see a 380% increase for the Open University, almost 700% for Surrey, over 470% for Keele, 540% for University of Central Lancashire, over 440% Aberystwyth and a massive 13,000% for Cardiff.

Clearly those predicted that Facebook would be a flash in the pan or would quickly be replaced by an open source competitor were mistaken.

But what is the story behind these figures? Has Cardiff University allocated significant levels of resources to encouraging use of Facebook? ;Have Facebook apps been developed which provide access to University services from within the Facebook environment? Or has the growth been led by the user community?

Looking to the Future

Whether we like it or not, we are now having to address the challenges of providing teaching and learning and research services under a Conservative/Lib Dem government. Similarly we will also need to be asking how we should go about exploiting the potential of Facebook within our institutions. We might need to ask, in these economically difficult times, whether institutional engagement with Facebook has delivered a return on the investment? Is there any evidence that use of Facebook as a marketing tool to attract overseas students has been successful? And if it might be relatively easy to put a value on the recruitment of overseas students, if Facebook is being used as a communications tool across campus, how would the effectiveness be measured?  And what about the question of the development of Facebook applications to support institutional interests? Have institutions (and their users) benefitted from the development of apps such as MyNewport (a submission to the IWMW 2008 innovation competition) or the Open University’s OU Course Profiles Facebook app (the launch of the service in November 2007 was described by Tony Hirst as “the first major push of our skunkworks Facebook app“)? Interestingly staff at the Open University wrote a document which summarised the initial experiences and the document, COURSE PROFILES – A Facebook Application for Open University Students and Alumni, although slightly dated is worth reading by those thinking about developing similar institutional Facebook apps.

As well as such questions which individual institutions may wish to find answers for, there may also benefits which can be gained from monitoring Facebook usage across the community. It may be misleading to extrapolate conclusions which may be made from the trends across these eight institutions.   Would it be possible, I wonder, for an automated tool to measure institutional uses of Facebook across the sector and for trends to be recorded?  Or rather than a technical solution, might a simpler approach for gathering evidence to inform discussions and decision making be to create a wiki? Or perhaps we could start with inviting readers to provide summaries as a comment to this post?  Anyone willing to do that?

9 Responses to “Planet Facebook Becomes Less of a Walled Garden”

  1. AJ Cann said

    Interesting post Brian. The ALT-C pages on facebook are highly experimental, but did seem to be popular during ALT-C 2010. Following discussions, we have now decided not to have a separate page for each conference but to focus on to try to build a more enduring community. It would be helpful if you could include this link in your post :-)

  2. […] Planet Facebook Becomes Less of a Walled Garden […]

  3. […] Planet Facebook Becomes Less of a Walled Garden […]

  4. […] garden, but following a recent announcement that users can download their own data we found that Planet Facebook has become less of a Walled Garden, with Steve Repetti, chair of the Data Portability Project, feeling that this news was “A step […]

  5. […] This is particularly true of Facebook which has been the subject of criticism for being a ‘walled-garden‘ and for what may be regarded as a cavalier approach to […]

  6. […] October 2010 I pointed out that Planet Facebook Becomes Less of a Walled Garden following the announcement that ”Facebook lets users download data, create groups“; […]

  7. […] Planet Facebook Becomes Less of a Walled Garden […]

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