Social Networking Tools Part 1: Facebook

I decided to start with social networking, because I think it is a great way to start a conversation about Web 2.0’s impact on the world and on libraries.  No doubt many of you have read about social networking tools (“SNTs”) as they have generated a lot of hype. As part of this review of popular social networking tools, I will shortly add posts regarding Library 2.0, dodgeball.com and (for fun) All Consuming. 

Today’s post will focus on how Facebook (www.facebook.com) works and why its particular utilities are popular with students and useful to libraries.  I will also list some reasons to be excited about this product as well as some reasons to be wary of it.

 Here is a Snippet of my Facebook Profile (complete with goofy picture) so that you can see the interface and content.

 This is the Home Page of Facebook , which you see upon first logging in.  (Like many 2.0 tools, you must register to view the content.)  The home pages are centered around the News Feed, which is based upon the Facebook members you have tagged as “Friends”.  Take a look at some of the news items that have been pushed to me by Facebook in the News Feed Section.  These are all the changes or events that happened on each of my friends’ pages within the past three days.  It’s a little creepy… you can’t so much as sneeze on Facebook without your entire network knowing about it. 

But on the filip side, that kind of intense connectivity allows networks to expand naturally- even if you aren’t a “Facebook Stalker”.  The News Feed above allows me to see that Philip and Heather are not “Friends”.  I then realize that Heather (whom I also know) now has an account, and I can easily request that she be connected to my page as a “Friend”.  In this way, your virtual network of contacts expands naturally, through mutual friends and mutual interests.

Opportunities:

So, aside from being a great tool for busybodies, what can Facebook offer us?  I really struggled with this for a while, since my gut reaction was that this kind of lack of privacy seems somewhat antithetical to our profession.  In the end, however, I think that it offers a few great oppotunities when used both cautiously and thoughtfully. 

  • Marketing:  Facebook allows every individual to index him/herself along a variety of lines.  For example, you may enter that you work at Dartmouth.  Facebook automatically tags you as part of the Dartmouth network.  So, if you create a Dartmouth library group, every Dartmouth student, faculty, and staff member who is on Facebook is extremely likely to come across your group in the normal course of Facebook use.  If they choose to join your group or add you as a “Friend” they will receive information on all your activities via the News Feed.  Although you can similarly push information to library users through RSS feeds or listservs, Facebook is particularly effective because users instantly see how many of their real-life and virtual friends are connected to the same sites and groups, so there is an added “hook” that goes far beyond an email message. 
  • Professional Development:  This is the favorite use of Facebook among LIS students at Syracuse. I am a member of both the Syracuse iSchool group, which acts as a forum for discussion on issues regarding the school, and the ALA members group, which encourages conversations about how to develop policies and best practices for utilizing SNTs.  As soon as anyone has an idea and posts it, my News Feed pushes that information to me, and I stay apprised of the conversation. 
  • Entering a networking culture that is embraced by students:  Facebook started as a tool exclusively for university students, faculty and staff, so it has been associated with this sphere for some time.  The Dartmouth network alone currently lists 15, 192 members.  Here are two Facebook Groups  that have been created by members of the Dartmouth network.  Please note the size of these groups.  The impromptu and very heartfelt memorial group, avove, underscores Facebook’s cultural function within the community.  When I was recently wroking at SUNY ESF, students informed me that their student government body no longer maintains a listserv or an email account.  Rather all communications, official and unofficial, are handled through Facebook, relying entirely on groups and News Feeds.

Concerns:

  • Student Culture:  Students may well consider Facebook to be “their turf” to be used exclusively for leisure, and Library involvement could be seen as an invasion rather than a partnership. 
  • Preservation:  There is no internal system for archiving information that is posted or disseminated through Facebook.  Pages are meant to be dynamic, with new content superceding the old.  In the case of SUNY ESF, above, such heavy use of Facebook for official business could mean the loss of long term records of the student government’s activities.
  • Time:  To create a working community, or to tap into an existing community, one needs to be continually present.  It is considered bad Facebook etiquette to check in only rarely.  Similarly, student involvement must be continually courted to maintain group participation.  I can foresee some neat opportunities for contests, games, promotions, etc that are disseminated through Facebook groups and take place in the physical library; similarly, tutorials and embedded chat widgets add another dimension of potential usefulness to group members.  However, it is clear that once the library commits to this online community, it must commit long term.  Hence, effective use of this service is a drain on staff time.
  • Privacy of librarians:  Facebook’s terms of use clearly specify that an institution cannot have a profile page of its own.  Only individuals can set up a profile, gather contacts, and start groups.  Therefore, any librarian that is willing to enter the Facebook world must be fairly comfortable about posting information about him/herself online.  This is a personal decision, and not an easy one to make, although it is possible to limit how much information is disseminated by Facebook. 
  • Assessment:  With the necessity of continued participation and staff time, assessment is a vital part of a library’s interaction with this tool.  Unfortunately, it can be difficult to assess the impact that Facebook has had on students’ level of interest or awareness of library services in a quantitative fashion. 
  • Copyright:  Facebook’s Terms of Service are ambiguous as to how much of a claim it takes over content posted to personal pages via its service.  Terms of service must be very carefully analyzed before ever using Facebook extensively.

In Sum:

  1. Facebook is primarily a communication tool which pushes information to users in a number of ways and encourages involvement.
  2. Facebook is widely adopted and extensively used at Dartmouth.
  3. Facebook indexes individuals along any dimensions they provide (hometown, high school, favorite book, etc) so be aware that any information you provide is searchable, unless you carefully specify otherwise.  While this makes groups within a network easily discoverable, individual privacy becomes a major concern.
  4. At the heart of this service is participation.  The service cannot be used adequately without maintaining a continued presence.

Cool Rating:  5 (if you’re not scared of publicity).

Further Reading:

Regarding the explosive growth of SNTs:  http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,135355-c,webservices/article.html

-M.G

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8 Responses to “Social Networking Tools Part 1: Facebook”

  1. Meg Gaffey Says:

    Here’s a recent interview with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg from TIME regarding where FB is headed….

    http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1644040,00.html

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