The Facebook lessons


(avlxyz – http://www.flickr.com/photo_zoom.gne?id=2077892948&size=l)

So, as I said in my last post, this will be the year Facebook fades away for many of us. It won’t disappear – I’ll probably have a Facebook profile still, but I just won’t use it much, rather like I have a LinkedIn profile that I never do anything with. So, before it goes and we become all dismissive about it, here are some of the good things the Facebook experience taught me. I am focusing here on personal lessons rather than the more general business models, or social network success factors which have been widely commented on (e.g. having an open API):

  • Social networking wasn’t just for teenagers – prior to about May 2007 I had a few accounts in various social networking sites, but none of them did much. I read about kids loving Bebo, MySpace etc but I could often be found spouting the view that if you were over thirty they were of academic interest only, ie we liked to research them, but not actually use them (see below). Then Facebook reached a tipping point in terms of the people I knew on it (and these were people I liked and respected), and within a couple of weeks I was using it daily, updating my status regularly and building up a network.
  • The social dimension is important in a professional context – my Facebook network is consitituted from professional peers who I like. Whereas LinkedIn seems to be professional peers who are potentially good for business. So what I discovered through Facebook is that the intersection of the social and the professional is what is important in my network, not just one or the other. This doesn’t mean I have to have met the people face to face, but usually through blogs we have some form of dialogue. This is of course something you know instinctively in a face to face work context – it’s not just who you work with, but who you like working with that is important. But finding a means of extending this without it being intrusive has been something Facebook has given me.
  • You only understand it by doing it – as many people have commented (e.g. Ewan), in order to understand web 2.0 you have to act 2.0. I think too many academics are guilty of seeing social networking, or any popular tool, as something to be researched, but not something to be experienced and used. This is both rather a snobbish attitude and also misses the point. Signing up for an account, dropping in for a couple of weeks, doing a survey and then disappearing does not gain you an understanding of how these things are really being used.
  • Control of the student dialogue is over – if it was ever real in the first place. We can provide some official systems for students to use, but we can’t make them use them. Through developing the OU Course Profiles app we’ve seen some students using Facebook as their preferred mechanism for discussion over the official VLE. They were doing this anyway without our app, so the question is whether you ignore it or support it (and what ‘support’ means in this context) – but controlling or denying it are not options. We have to accept this in higher education – it’s a messy, disaggregated world now.
  • Universities need to be more flexible organisationally – the OU Facebook app came about because Tony had a chat with Liam and Stuart and they did it in their spare time. When I got involved it was to get some buy out of their time. The problem is that the OU, like all universities, doesn’t really have the right organisational units or structures to deal with this new world. We have toyed with the idea of setting up a Facebook project, which would need official recognition and funding, have deliverables, a timeframe and end point. But, if you accept my proposal in the last post that actually we need to get used to a continual stream of tools we love for a few months, then you don’t want a ‘Facebook project’. You don’t really want a project structure at all, you want people to coalesce around a technology, play with it, then move on to something else. This is a very difficult approach to realise in a large organisation where people have to be accountable for their time.
  • Fun is the killer app – a fact not only ignored, but positively treated with disdain by designers of educational software (at least in higher ed). Facebook was fun to use, your average VLE isn’t.

I wonder if I’ll be writing a similar post about Twitter in a year’s time.


  • robojiannis

    I totally agree. Facebook’s days are counted. With data portability available, people will choose platforms less cluttered.
    I think you will write about twitter in a years time. It’s a bubble and it will burst.

  • Sue Waters

    Absolutely love the photo you have chosen. Totally agree with your statement regarding “You only understand by doing it.” Definitely I’m not a fan of Facebook, and there are many like me, however I wonder if we will really see a big decline or will it be a case more options means people will each have their preferred platforms? Not explaining myself well e.g. at work, one colleague prefers contact by phone and rarely uses email, I prefer email, another forget email or phone call only f2f will work. So social networking sites proliferate will people end up choosing sites depending on their own preferences.
    My thoughts with students, in terms of their own personal learning networks, they will choose their own methods of assisting one another – depending on their own preferences.
    Twitter mmmmmm. No predictions either way :).

  • Martin

    Robojiannis – you may be right about Twitter, when everyone joins it will become unmanageable. What it has going for it though is its simplicity – it does just the one thing and if you like doing that, then you’ll carry on. FB became a platform for everything which was part of its appeal, but ultimately its downfall too.
    Sue – I think you’re right about the preferred types of communications. I think it will be very disaggregated – you will communicate with people in a variety of ways, often a myriad means for the same people. In fact, I was just going to do a blog post on this very topic…

  • AJ Cann

    Choice. Multiple platforms. Open-ness. That’s the future. You say Twitter, I say del.icio.us (Let’s call the whole thing off…) RSS. Mmmm. Incoherent acronym fog.

  • Sue Waters

    Well the key with Twitter will be in your effective management of your network – limiting the number you follow to a manageable level. I like how Alan Levine is using TweetScan to manage his network. Doesn’t add all followers instead subscribes to TweetScan for cogdog so if a follower (who he doesn’t follow) talks to him he can respond back. As more people join twitter we will need to be harsher in who we follow.
    Wait in interest for your blog post on social networking and disaggregated.
    Interesting AJ that you mention del.icio.us – sure I use it but not as much as I used to. Become lazy with Google Reader and more likely to search within Google Reader for the posts. Which is really bad. Used to have lots of people share links with me using del.icio.us but now only every now and them. Perhaps because I didn’t share enough link love? Or maybe they have changed how they use the different applications also?

  • AJ Cann

    Your point about network management (which could bring us on to multiple online identities) is a good one Sue, and applies to del.icio.us as much as to Twitter or any other network. I use the del.icio.us search options as a way of intelligent filtering, but that will only be as intelligent as my network.

  • Matt McGraw

    Greetings from the US!
    I am wondering what you think will be the site or, perhaps more to the point, the technology which will replace the twitters and the facebooks and the myspaces. It seems to you, and to your readers, the demise of facebook is a foregone conclusion, but I see no signs of that here in the States. Many of my friends (I’m 32) are leaving myspace behind in favor of facebook. What are the tech-savvy throngs of UK-er’s doing for social networking?
    Thanks for writing this blog, I enjoy reading your thoughts.

  • Rusty Weston

    Folks, these allegations are entirely off-base. FB is growing at the rate of 2 million new subscribers each week. Hardly a sign of decline! I’m conducting a research study that has 350+ respondents (and counting) from more than 20 nations and five continents, one-third women, nearly half are students. And most people belong to more than one site and spend the majority of their time on one, which is only natural. My study compares how people use these sites personally and professionaly – the differences are quite sharp. The people who just use it for fun generally are blind to other possibilities (like looking for a job), but I believe that will change over time. Sure, most FB apps are silly, but they don’t have to be, that’s just what the market is churning through at the moment. You’re welcome to check out this study at http://s-kf7uz-25818.sgizmo.com/

  • Martin

    Hi Matt and Rusty, thanks for the comments – I don’t think FB will necessarily decline, but I said it would be the year we stop loving it. And when I say ‘we’ I’m probably thinking of ed techie people. There is still a big chunk of the distribution curve that will take it up. So it’ll probably increase this year, but that’s a different thing from being the app you love.
    I think most of us will have an FB (or other site) profile, but just not use it much. As for the future – I think it will be more disaggregated. So you have more focused tools e.g. twitter, which you, almost by accident, acrue around yourself, each performing different tasks. Think of it like a big widget collection on your blog.
    Some have taken this post as FB bashing – it wasn’t meant that way, just to say that the honeymoon period is over, and I wanted to reflect on the good things it had taught me.
    Of course, I could be wrong, that’s why I’m not rich!

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