Wednesday 16 January 2008

Whither Facebook?

Out of all the networking sites, Facebook continues to create (at least from where I'm sitting) the most discussion. Following the Beacon incident, the most recent fracas at the very beginning of the year involved Robert Scoble, who has been banned from Facebook for scraping his "friends" into Plaxo.

Others are now coming out the wood work complaining about social networking in general, like Thomas Baekdal who gives us five reasons why he doesn't use social networking sites including this comment about FB:

    "Let's face it, 90% of all the things going on in social networks is just crap. Facebook is the worst I have experience so far - my front page is filled with junk."

(BTW He has subsequently back tracked and for the right reasons, I think, agreed that LinkedIn does have some value.)

Care of Nick Carr (and please someone, buy his new book so he'll stop advertising it), Guardian columnist Tom Hodgkinson give us the conspiracy theory why we should abandon FB:

"Facebook is a well-funded project, and the people behind the funding, a group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, have a clearly thought out ideology that they are hoping to spread around the world. Facebook is one manifestation of this ideology."

Hodgkinson also warns us that some of those venture capitalists include the CIA and suggests we subsitute the word "Facebook" with "Big Brother" in FB's privacy policy :-)

Personally, I have mixed feelings right now about FB as a business tool but not because I think social networking in business is a waste of time or that the FB marketing system is anything different than a system like Flybuys. I know FB are trying to tweak the system to keep it attractive, like the new extended profile option, but as their user base broadens I suspect they are gradually running into what has always been the dilemma of portals, both inside or outside the firewall, (and FB is a user- or social network-centric portal) being how to:

  1. Meet the needs of different user groups without requiring so much personalisation that users either give up, find it so complicated they can't or they simply can't be bothered;
  2. Keep the portal relevant and useful enough to create regular usage.

(The relevancy issue is one reason why if a company wants its employees to use it for business, then making FB the intranet is a good idea although I'm not so sure about the employees.)

Fundamentally I'm finding mixing my business and personal life, and the privacy issues that go with that, in FB a challenge; and because FB isn't meeting this need well its affecting the site's relevancy to me. Perhaps Charlene Li was right after all and I should simply create a second FB identity, however what I really want is something that is easy to use.

And not just me I'm worried about, as this blog essay on AlterNet warns:

"Most people don't use the privacy settings to limit access to their Facebook profile. Four out of five simply accept the default setting, which allows their whole network to see the entire profile. In the UCLA network, that's 50,400 people. The Boston network has 312,404 people. For comparison, the city's tabloid, the Boston Herald, has a circulation of 201,503. Users may think they're only sharing with the friends they can see, but they're actually publishing with the reach of a newspaper."

(The rest of this blog essay is well worth reading.)

One simple way to do this is to have one identity but two distinct FB sites - Facebook "Original" and Facebook for business, perhaps offering organisations with private label options - where the context of where you login and create particular relationships would determine what and how information is shared. Its just an idea, and maybe there is a better way, but for now FB is failing to achieve all it could be.


  1. Anonymous3:51 am

    [Argh!! I just to comment via TypeKey and it failed on return to Blogger]

    Check out danah boyd's perspective on these things. I like her more balanced approach.

  2. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done around identity management, profile management, data rights, etc. This will be even more critical when things like APML begin to take off for real. In the real world, I have different personas depending on who I'm dealing with (family, work, friends, organisations, etc). It stands to reason that the virtual me will have the same requirement. Right now, we have very few tools to manage how we present ourselves to the virtual world.

    Very interesting blog entry James!

  3. Anonymous4:59 pm

    I think an enterprise-based Facebook equivalent could still be a useful point of internal digital identity and networking hub.

    You are right to identify the problems with Facebook, especially the lack of focus and the broadness of the task it sees for itself. This weakness reflects a desire for accumulating members (as if numerical supremacy means much by itself) rather than offering real and effective solutions (a bit like religion really in the soul collecting business).

    The realm of Facebook and digital identities networking across a membership platform are still evolving and some good will come from it.



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