An important part of life is developing social and professional networks. It's not something we necessarily think about overtly, but we each live in a fabric of relationships of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and professional colleagues. Opportunities increasingly present themselves to interact with those networks through online social networking sites. The natural early adopters tend to include two groups: the millennials that gravitate to all forms of media and communication and those with techie tendencies. In the last year or so it seems that online social networking has suddenly exploded beyond these groups to the mainstream, attracting Web users of all generations.
Online social networks have been a common fixture of the Web for quite some time. Sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Linkedln, and Friendster rank among the most popular. Many sites focused on other types of content sport social networking features. Flickr, for example, while devoted to sharing photos, embodies the full spectrum of social networking features.
Facebook.com, originally established as a site for college students, has recently burst beyond its roots and captured broad interest. In its brief history [Editor's Note: See the Facebook feature, page 21.], Facebook has expanded from a network for a few schools in the northeastern U.S. to all colleges and universities, to high schools, and is now open to everyone. As of July 2007, Facebook claims more than 30 million active members and now ranks as one of the top Web destinations in the world. This installment of The Systems Librarian takes a closer look at Facebook and explores some of the ways it might make a difference for those of us working in libraries.
In academic libraries, Facebook plays a part in the lives of almost all of our student clientele; with high school students now joining Facebook in droves, it's also a factor for public and school librarians. As social networks become more ingrained in the lives of our younger patrons, it behooves those of us in the library profession to learn as much as we can about them.
It's more than an abstract interest. Many in the library profession have discovered that Facebook is well suited as a tool for developing their own social and professional networks online.
The best way to learn about Facebook is to join and explore it for yourself, but I'll sketch out some of its basic features here to help spark your interest.
In Facebook, members have Profiles, they make Friends, they belong to a Network, and they create and join Groups. Each member has the opportunity to set up a Profile that provides information to other members. Your Profile can contain as much or as little information as you choose. Some choose to provide only a few basic facts, while others flood their Profiles with full details of their activities, personal preferences, and their personality. While my Profile currently lists only scant information (the city where I live, where I work, and where I went to school), more expressive users include their interests in books and movies, hobbies, travels, favorite sayings, and the like.
Facebook centers on the concept of Friends. Becoming Facebook Friends involves two steps: one member sends an invitation, and the other has to confirm the invitation. This mutual process goes a long way toward preventing unwanted intrusions into your online social life. Since accepting a Friend request also provides access to view your Profile, those concerned with their online privacy will want to be a bit selective.
Unlike many other online environments, in Facebook a member's online presence usually reflects his or her actual person. On sites such as MySpace, members often create virtual personas quite apart from their own demographic. Such isn't the case with Facebook, where almost all members use their real names and include photos that don't misrepresent their age, gender, or species.
Facebook works as a tool for all sorts of interaction, often providing a path from online to in-person encounters, but it isn't a dating site. The types of online relationships and interactions that take place there are as varied as those in real life.
Facebook provides lots of ways to spark interest and interaction among its members. The Status feature allows someone to say something about his or her current location, activity, or feeling. Facebook.com provides the first two words, consisting of the person's first name followed by "is" (for example "Marshall is ..."). The user fills in the rest. One can choose mundane Status options from a drop down, such as "Marshall is at work" or "Marshall is at home," but many take a more expressive approach, such as "Marshall is dreading a long flight to Oakland," (which comes to mind as I write this column on a cramped airplane). Another feature called the Wall allows members to write quips or comments on another's Profile page, usually in reaction to something mentioned in a Status line or other posting. Wall posts are public conversations, viewable by anyone with access to the Profile. Facebook also includes a message system, not unlike email, for private person-toperson conversations.
Facebook recently launched a Feed and a Mini-Feed that distribute information about people's Facebook actions to their Friends. While this keeps up a good churn of social information and sparks interest, some viewed it as too intrusive. Initially, it was a very controversial feature. To address this concern, Facebook managers decided to allow users to opt out of the Feeds.
As a person who has created a number of digital library systems oriented toward digital photographs and other images, I'm truly impressed with the tools that Facebook.com provides. Uploading photos is a snap-you simply browse to a directory on your PC and check off the ones to upload or grab them all. Once uploaded, you can add explanatory comments if you choose. But the coolest feature of all is tagging. When in tag mode, you simply click on the face of a person in the photo and select a name from your Friends and Networks. While you can also tag photos with names of nonmembers, the power of tagging lies in the way it helps build interconnections within the Facebook.com community.
Many may find it surprising that Facebook.com currently stands as the most popular site on the Web for sharing photos. You might think it's Flickr.com. But as of July 2007, members have uploaded more than 1.7 billion photos into Facebook. The site serves more than 3 billion images each day, and more than 2.2 billion tags to members have been created. These photos consume more than 160 terabytes of storage.
The site continually evolves; announcements of major new components and features happen every few months. The spirit of constant development and new features to explore may be one of the reasons behind Facebook's success. Though some changes have been controversial among its members, the churn of change helps it to maintain a high level of interest and activity among them. That in itself is something that we might take note of as we develop library Web sites.
The latest rage, for example, is Facebook Applications. Facebook offers a developer's platform that allows third parties to develop Applications that add new features and functions. Some of these third-party Applications provide whimsical features such as virtual food fights; others are more serious, such as those that allow someone to search a library catalog from within Facebook. The developer's platform raised some concern that personal information from Facebook could be extracted and misused. The Applications, however, work on an opt-in basis and must function within the privacy settings chosen by the member.
By opening it up to third-party developers, Facebook has opened the door to user-initiated innovation-a great strategy for keeping the site interesting and making it more useful.
From Academic Observer ...
I originally set up an account on Facebook quite some time ago. My original foray was meant to get a better understanding of this phenomenon that seemed to be the center of the student online life. While I don't have any objective data, it appears to me that students spend as much, or more, time interacting with Facebook as they do with the systems provided by the university. Students use the online course-ware system and the library's Web site and catalog when they have to but spend time on Facebook.com because they want to. I think that we can learn a lot from this site as we think about interfaces with tremendous appeal.
... To Involved Participant
While my initial interest in Facebook was to learn about how students used it, I've since grown to use it for my own online social network. When I first set up an account, there were few nonstudents. My account sat idle for quite some time. Beginning only a few months ago, the pre-millennial generations suddenly discovered Facebook. Last time I checked, about 20 percent of the staff of our library had joined, and all sorts of conversations and interactions take place that wouldn't have otherwise.
Facebook serves as a good medium for non-work-related conversations. It's not that it wouldn't be OK to use the university email system for these but that Facebook provides a more comfortable venue. I especially like the way that Facebook puts me in better contact with the people that I see in person only a few times a year as I travel to library meetings. It allows me to be more aware of what they are doing and to see aspects of their lives that I might not get to know about otherwise. It's not that I exchange that many messages on Facebook with these more distant friends than I would through email, but by seeing some of the banter that comes through the Feeds through Status changes and Wall postings, I have much more awareness of their daily lives.
Have Concern for Privacy
Facebook pokes at the heart of online privacy issues. How much personal information should one post online at all, and how widely to share it? Many Profiles contain very personal information. Some of the photos reflect the frivolity typical of students in their college years with their newly found and well-enjoyed freedom. In the earlier days of Facebook when it was largely unknown to outsiders, few worried about privacy issues. Now that it's open to all comers and well-known to all sorts of authorities, members would do well to guard their privacy a bit more carefully.
Anecdotes abound regarding students who have had information and photos in Facebook used against them. Sports teams with strict policies against drugs and alcohol, for example, have been known to enforce sanctions against individuals based on the direct or even indirect evidence gleaned through photos in Facebook. One might debate on whether it's proper or ethical for authorities to peruse information intended as private for other purposes. Fortunately, Facebook provides quite good tools that allow users to tune privacy to their own level of comfort. The privacy section allows members fairly granular choices about which Profile elements to make available to Friends and Networks.
Librarians and Facebook?
So, what's the library slant? Given that Facebook seems to be a pervasive part of student life, can librarians make good use of it? I can see several options and opportunities.
The most ambitious approach might involve using Facebook.com as a venue for the library's outreach to students. We might envision librarians in a Facebook repartee with students, answering latenight questions ranging from trivia to last-minute, paper-due-in-the-morning information emergencies. But the very nature of Facebook works against this scenario. The natural circle of Friends centers on one's peers. We've noted that students' Profiles might include photos and details that they wouldn't necessarily want to share with their teachers and parents. It may be unrealistic to think that large numbers of undergraduate students would want to count librarians among their Facebook Friends.
I think that the more that library professionals use social networking environments like Facebook, the more that they will discover good ways to use it to improve library services and to expand their outreach.
The Facebook developer's platform presents enormous opportunities for librarians to integrate library services. I've written many times about the importance of integrating library content and services into higher-level portals, such as courseware systems using Web services. It now seems to me that it may be just as important to build the same kinds of plug-ins for apps like Facebook.
Social networking sites such as Facebook fall within the "trends of our users that we just can't ignore" category. Today, Facebook seems to be the one with the most immediate interest to the library community. While Facebook itself may not last forever as one of the top social networking sites, the evolution of the Web toward a more social and collaborative flavor seems to be a trend that we can count on. I'd be delighted to meet any CIL readers on Facebook. Don't just be passive readers; let's be Friends.