UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Things We Can Learn From Facebook

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 Oct 2011


Are you pleased, angry or indifferent to Facebook developments (photograph taken at Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow)

Looking at the Evidence

What is your take on recent Facebook developments? Are you feeling angry and have perhaps already deleted your Facebook account as have one or two of my Facebook followers? Or perhaps you are indifferent or even unaware of recent Facebook developments. In which case you are probably just using Facebook as a tool and aren’t taking part in the discussions about Facebook and privacy.

Shortly before a trip to Glasgow this weekend I asked for suggestions on places to visit and things to do. I decided to use my three main social networks in order to gain some anecdotal evidence on current usage of Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

In response to my query I received three responses from four people on Twitter (including one who suggested that I should visit Edinburgh!), 16 comments from fifteen people on Facebook and four comments on Google+.

Whilst that would suggest that Facebook is the most effective social networking environment for me, there is a need to related the numbers of responses to the size of the social network.   But since I have 2,583 followers on Twitter, 625 friends on Facebook and 417 followers on Google+ this seems to confirm the personal value of Facebook to me.

But what about the bigger picture? In a post entitled “Why Facebook’s new Open Graph makes us all part of the web underclass” by Adrian Smart and published recently on the Guardian Web site Adrian argued that “If you’re not paying for your presence on the web, then you’re just a product being used by an organisation bigger than you“. This was, I felt, a very elitist article, with the suggestion that:

When you own a domain you’re a first class citizen of the web. A householder and landowner. What you can do on your own website is only very broadly constrained by law and convention. You can post the content you like. You can run the software you want, including software you’ve written or customised yourself. And you can design it to look the way you want.

suggesting that you are a second class citizen if you primarily use your institutional Web site or, as I do. on the site which constrains the plugins used and look-and-feel for this blog. Actually, you’re worse than a second class citizen:

When you use a free web service you’re the underclass. At best you’re a guest. At worst you’re a beggar, couchsurfing the web and scavenging for crumbs. It’s a cliché but worth repeating: if you’re not paying for it, you’re aren’t the customer, you’re the product. 

In this elitist view, it seems that unless you control your own domain you’re a member of the underclass. The article goes on to take a sideswipe at Facebook, in particular. But it was amusing when I saw the tweet from the Guardian’s @currybet (Martin Belam) which pointed out that:

That “peril of Facebook” post by @adrianshort has 2,000 Likes and has been read nearly 3,000 times in our Facebook app

Yes, it seems that the “Web underclass” is willing to share their engagement with their peers  using a Facebook  Like or the walled garden provided by the Guardian Facebook app – and in quite large numbers.

Avoiding The Echo Chamber

I have described a polarised situation in which posts describing the various problems with Facebook such as the reasons series of articles which have described how Facebook tracks you online even after you log outFacebook denies cookie tracking allegations, Facebook fixes cookie behavior after logging out and US congressmen ask FTC to investigate Facebook cookies.

But whilst Nik Cubrilovic, author of the post in which he accused Facebook of tracking its users even if they log out of the social network has subsequently written a post on how Facebook made changes to the logout process in which he describes how the cookies in question now behave as they should (they still exist, but they no longer send back personally-identifiable information after you log out) we are still seeing tweets in which the initial findings are being repeated.  We also seem to fail to hear other perspectives including the comment from Facebook engineer Gregg Stefancik:

I’m an engineer who works on these systems. I want to make it clear that there was no security or privacy breach. Facebook did not store or use any information it should not have. Like every site on the internet that personalizes content and tries to provide a secure experience for users, we place cookies on the computer of the user. Three of these cookies on some users’ computers included unique identifiers when the user had logged out of Facebook. However, we did not store these identifiers for logged out users. Therefore, we could not have used this information for tracking or any other purpose. In addition, we fixed the cookies so that they won’t include unique information in the future when people log out.

I feel there is a need to have a better understanding of the complexities of the issues and  be willing to listen to the views of others and not just respond to views expressed on ‘echo chambers‘ such as Twitter.

What Can We Learn From Facebook?

In order to move the discussion on from the Twitter echo chamber I’d like to summarise some aspects of Facebook which should be considered in more depth.

“Seamless sharing” could be an appealing concept: A recent post on the Bashki blog announced “Facebook Wants to Change the Way You Share” and described how “Facebook wants to remove as much friction from sharing as possible so that it’s seamlessly integrated with a user’s online activity“. When I heard the term ‘seamless sharing’ it reminded me of the JISC’s vision, over 10 years ago, for the Distributed National Electronic Resource (the DNER as it was initially referred to).   As I described in a poster entitled “Approaches To Indexing In The UK Higher Education Community” presented at the WWW 9 conference in May 2000: “The DNER aims to provide seamless access to electronic resources provided by JISC service providers“. The ideas in the paper were a reflection of the vision for the DNER described by Reg Carr, Director of the Oxford University Library Services who, in a paper on “Creating the Distributed National Electronic Resource, argued that “if the DNER is to deliver the goods in the way envisaged, it will have to do so in a carefully integrated, flexible and seamless way“.

Let’s be honest and admit that in higher education we too are looking to provide a seamless sharing environment.  This is a positive term and we should avoid misinterpretting this term.

We want to understand and respond to user interactions: I recently attended a meeting on learning analytics which Wikipedia describes asthe measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimising learning and the environments in which it occurs“.

Back in 2008 Dave Pattern in a post on “Free Book Usage Data Available from the University of Huddersfield” described how the Library Service had “released a major portion of our book circulation and recommendation data“. Eighteen months later in a post on “Non/low library usage and final grades” Dave described how analysis of the library usage data had showed that “it’s those students who graduate with a third-class honour who are the most likely to be non or low-users of e-resources“. In this case analysis of user interactions (and non-interactions) can lead to an institution taking actions, which could include promotion of appropriate Library resources, training, etc.

Facebook  also analyses its user attention data.  If it notices that I am following England’s rugby team’s exploits in the Rugby World Cup it might also respond to failings, but rather than providing an advert for a Library training course, it might suggest I console myself with a pint of Carling!

Walled gardens can provide a nurturing environment: The term ‘walled garden’ is widely used to dismiss Facebook as a closed environment. Facebook clearly was a closed environment when it was launched, with access restricted to those working in approved academic institutions. However now anyone can have a Facebook account (including organisations) and content can be made public too all or access restricted (in ways not easily achieved on conventional Web sites).  Facebook can be used as a platform for walled garden application, with users needing to install the app in order to access the content – but since standard Facebook content can be published openly it would probably be incorrect to describe Facebook as a walled garden, unless we wish to use the term to describe Intranets.  However a mobile phone app which can only be deployed on a singly platform could, possibly, be described as a walled garden – and as several institutions are developing such apps we need to avoid inconsistencies in the terminology we are using.

In addition to the need to be more rigourous in defining the term there is also a need to reflect on the potential benefits of walled gardens.  I have heard a walled garden being described a providing a ‘managed’ or ‘nurturing’ environment. The institutional VLE may be regarded as a walled garden, but this point is very rarely heard when the term is being used to dismiss technologies one doesn’t approve of.

Users understand the need for sustainable business models: I have always been rather bemused by the statement: “if you’re not paying for a service you’re the product“. When I watch the Rugby World Cup matches on ITV I can also be described as ‘the product’.  ITV isn’t broadcasting the matches as a favour to me and other sports’ fans: it’s doing so in order to make money from the associated advertising.  And just as TV viewers understand the business models so too will users of social networking services understand that the service providers need to make money, both to fund the service and to provide a profit for the owners.

Let’s be honest and admit that faced with a choice of business models based on subscription services, advertising or even nationalised services, the evidence suggests that many users are willing to use services which provide adverts.

Isn’t there a lot which we can learn if we avoid the simple slogans and reflect on the Facebook experiences and successes which users seem to find beneficial?

17 Responses to “Things We Can Learn From Facebook”

  1. I was one of those who complained vociferously about the Facebook logged-out tracking, which I very much objected to. I spent some time changing my behaviour, segregating my Facebook activity into a browser to be used for nothing else, denying Facebook cookies in my (new) main browser, and checking all cookies set (most of which I just approve for the session). The latter is a pain and I’m not sure how long I’ll keep it up, but it’s interesting to see the cookies, and their expiry dates in particular (I’m not consciously keeping track, but I think 2041 was about the latest I’ve spotted so far!).

    I had read Nik Cubrilovic’s original article. I must say I wasn’t at all convinced by the alleged “Facebook engineer” response, as he seemed to be flying completely in the face of the evidence. With hindsight we can see why that happened, but it had a feel of an ingenuous junior engineeer who didn’t know what his company was doing. And of course, we had no real idea who he really was.

    It took me quite some time to discover Nik’s followup work. Kudos to him for sticking with it, and engaging in what must have been a protraced dialogue with facebook’s engineer’s to persuade them both that something was wrong, and also that they really had to fix it. Kudos to them that they apparently did, although I have not checked. And no kudos at all to me for NOT mentioning this on twitter (in defence, my attention had moved on… and maybe I will now).

    So am I now a friend of Facebook? Sadly not… they seem to average about 6 months between their successive trust-destroying incidents, and at the moment I would rather increase than decrease my control over on-line presence.

    Should I be more worried about Google? I suspect I should. I won’t join G+, and I won’t login to Google, but I do use Gmail (almost always via IMAP rather than direct login). But I use Google search all the time. I’m sure they could make the conncetion between this IP address and the source of my IMAP conncetions (etc) if they wanted to. But this is a straight trade of functionality that I need to live an onlne life with a possible identity leak. Since I never found anything useful about Facebook, nor ever quite understood what it was for, and since I get irritated as hell by having unknown “friends” shoved at me all the time, even when FB has seduced me to visit because of some photo tag or whatever, I guess I’ll just stay the hell out of it!

    Dinosaur, or what? (;-)

    • Thanks for the comment.

      The main point that I’m making is the need to respond in a considered fashion to criticisms of technologies, to be prepared to critique the critique and to ensure that any decisions which are made aren’t taken in haste. I noted, for example, how people were spending hours migrating their content from Delicious as the service has ‘taken away their RSS feeds‘ – only to hear soon afterwards that the missing RSS feeds was due to a DNS problem which had been rectified. Incidentally I saw a tweet from one person who installed a cookie deletion tool who complained that they were starting to see a host of ads being displayed – cookies can remember your preferences, including the fact that services have already shown you ads. Cookies can be your friend as can knowledge of your prefences and how you’ve used a service.

      Note this is a separate issue from the value may one feel that Facebook provides and the personal decisions one may take regarding use of the service.

  2. mariekeguy said

    Hi Brian,

    I read the Adrian Smart article and then posted it into my Facebook profile and was amused to find that the link took most users to the Guardian Facebook app rather than the actual Web site! How ironic! I’d agree with you that the article was elitist and it seemed to me that his target audience was primarily the web savy rather than the ‘web underclass’. To take his analogy one step further…many people are very happy to rent, they don’t necessarily want the responsibilites or the costs of house ownership, it’s a choice they make.

    I find myself in an interesting position in that the Twitterati I sit myself in seem to detest Facebook, yet my friends love it. My biggest worry regarding Facebook is that it is becoming a monopoly and many people are assuming that everyone is part of it. I’ve recently joined a few ‘real life’ groups where the primary communication mechanism is Facebook. There are people who will get left out, but then there are people who get left out (or choose to be left out) because they don’t have a smart phone, or don’t have an Internet connection. I personally don’t care about things like logged-out tracking because I know my own mind and am not particularly influenced by advertising, to a certain degree I feel I’ve already signed my Web life away, but I can see that there are issues.

    However the problem with the echo chamber is nobody listens to it. It’s like when your parents told you that alcohol was bad, but your own experiences told you otherwise, so why believe them. Facebook is an incredible tool and denying this just means that “the kids won’t listen”. What users need is a clear (and restrained) indication of the possible dangers along side recognition of the possible benefits. Shouts about it being a ‘walled garden’ mean little to the average user, they just drive them further away from the more techy solutions those people offer.


  3. I’d agree with Marieke that “the problem with the echo chamber is nobody listens to it” and add that there is also a lack of… longer-term memory? …historical perspective? …follow-through. Our negative reactions do seem to be a bit hasty when not purely fashionable.

    On the other hand, when Chris says “they seem to average about 6 months between their successive trust-destroying incidents, and at the moment I would rather increase than decrease my control over on-line presence” – that seems like a complaint based on a longer vision. (My reaction to the last set of changes was an almost physical weariness at the prospect of having to re-learn – yet again! – all Fb’s setting in order to have control over my profile and activities.)

    Yes, we “need to respond in a considered fashion to criticisms of technologies” – the same thing goes for political parties. But the government can be so maddening! There’s a constant gap between what they promise and what they do. That’s it, you cry. Then election day comes, and though you said you’d never vote for them again, you look at the other parties, or maybe the one other party, and you want to be responsible and vote for Somebody, so….

  4. […] Things We Can Learn From Facebook ( […]

  5. […] Things We Can Learn From Facebook Looking at the Evidence What is your take on recent Facebook developments? Are you feeling angry and have perhaps already deleted your Facebook account as have one or two of my Facebook followers?… Source: […]

  6. Phil said

    Brian, do you disagree with the “if you’re not paying for it, you’re aren’t the customer, you’re the product” line?

    • Phil said

      Ah, I see now that your last bit wasn’t a quote, as I originally thought, but your own thoughts.

      You say “TV viewers understand the business models” – I can’t believe this is possibly true. What do you think people’s understanding of a newspaper’s business model is? Do they think it is to sell people access to the news? If you asked someone what ITV’s product is, you think they’d say it was them?

      You say “many users are willing to use services which provide adverts.” – I would counter this with “they are prepared to use the service with the lowest barrier to entry” followed by something about lowest ongoing negative impact

      • Hi Phil
        I think people do understand that the licence fee pays for the BBC and advertising pays for ITV. The business model for newspapers is more complex – which is why I didn’t use that as an example.
        But although the line “if you’re not paying for it, you’re aren’t the customer, you’re the product” is well-established in the context of TV, it doesn’t work in other areas. You don’t pay to go to school; does that mean school children are the product? I don’t think it is a helpful phrase.

  7. So just to be clear – the examples that support your argument are good, but the ones that don’t are bad?

    I think the phrase is extremely useful, but that argument is a side issue – I just can’t see anything you’ve written which actually demonstrated that the “very elitist article” is wrong rather than some seemingly moral outrage that it *shouldn’t* be right, regardless of what *is*.

    Given that this blog post covers at least three very distinct topics, would it be better to have spread them out a little?

    Also, your Newstoebook links appear to be broken.

    • Hi Phil
      I stick by my assertion that:

      When you own a domain you’re a first class citizen of the web. A householder and landowner. What you can do on your own website is only very broadly constrained by law and convention. You can post the content you like. You can run the software you want, including software you’ve written or customised yourself. And you can design it to look the way you want.

      is elitist. If people don’t want to manage their own domain, that’s fine – they shouldn’t be regarded as the ‘underclass’ if they make that decision.

      However I take your point that I’m addressing multiple issues in the post. That’s a reason why I have used a simple example (BBC vs ITV) and not get into complicated issues regarding business models for newspapers.

      Ta for the info about the broken Newstoebook link – will fix.

      • Hi Brian,

        My question is slightly different to the one you have answered. Yours is philosophical, mine is practical – they *shouldn’t* be regarded as an underclass, fine, but *are* they? I would argue that if some organisation can arbitrarily remove information which you nominally consider “yours” from the web, then yes you are. My hosting provider can only do so if I break a law, or through some other legal channel being acted upon.

      • Hi Phil

        The University of Bath can remove my content if I fail to comply with the University’s AUP. Therefore the University is treating me as a member of the underclass? And so we should not be using the University of Bath Web site? I disagree, on practical and philosophical grounds. I am happy to use the University of Bath Web site and Facebook and other services, based on my assessment on risks and benefits.

  8. Brian, you are either deliberately misunderstanding me or I am not being clear. I am not sure which.

    • Hi Phil
      I’ve said that I don’t agree with the statement “When you own a domain you’re a first class citizen of the web” and have given several reasons why I don’t agree with that statement. I’m not clear what point you’re making, I’m afraid. Are you saying that people should be managing their own domain (as I know you do?) If so, let’s agree to differ :-)

      • Hi Brian,

        You’ve given one reason, not several, but moving on ;)

        The University cannot arbitrarily remove your content, Facebook can. Discuss.

      • Hi Phil terms and conditions state that

        “Automattic has the right (though not the obligation) to, in Automattic’s sole discretion (i) refuse or remove any content that, in Automattic’s reasonable opinion, violates any Automattic policy or is in any way harmful or objectionable, or (ii) terminate or deny access to and use of the Website to any individual or entity for any reason, in Automattic’s sole discretion. Automattic will have no obligation to provide a refund of any amounts previously paid.”

        The University of Bath’s AUP states that:

        “Your use of the University’s computing services must at all times comply with the law.
        Your use of the University’s computing services must not interfere with any others’ use of these facilities and services.
        You are not entitled to use a computer that you have not been authorised to use.
        You must not access any program or data which has not been specifically authorised for your use.
        You must not use or copy any data or program belonging to other users without their express and specific permission.
        You must not alter computer material belonging to another user without the users permission.
        You must not use University computing services to harass, defame, libel, slander, intimidate, impersonate or otherwise abuse another person.
        You must not use University computing services for the creation, collection, storage, downloading or displaying of any offensive, obscene, indecent or menacing images, data or material capable of being resolved into such. (There may be certain legitimate exceptions for academic purposes which would require the fullest disclosure and special authorisations)”

        and goes on to state that:

        “Severe Breach

        This level of breach will attract more stringent sanctions, penalties and consequences than those above, and access to computing facilities and services may be withdrawn (account suspension) until the disciplinary process and its outcomes have been concluded. Possible sanctions include:

        A fine of up to £150 may be levied.

        Withdrawal of access to computing facilities and services.

        For the most serious cases, referral via the University Secretary to the Vice-Chancellor under the formal disciplinary procedures.

        Examples of this level of breach would include:

        Any action, whilst using University computing services and facilities deemed likely to bring the University into disrepute.”

        Best I don’t bring the University into disrepute! Note I’m sure Facebook will have similar terms and Conditions (although they won’t be able to fine me!)

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