Background

Before Christmas I received an email from someone wanting advice on social networking services to support a project. Initially I thought I was being asked for my opinions on blogging or wiki applications. However a phone call clarified the requirements, which was advice on the merits of different social networking services such as My Space and Facebook.

I had to confess that I have only limited experience of either of these environments. The question did make me reflect on who should provide such advice within an institution? If such services can be used to support the teaching and learning or research activities in an institution, shouldn’t there be some provision of advice and support? And even if such services are used for social purposes (which, of course, they are) why should that be a factor in ruling out a level of support? After all, email and the Web, in general, is used for social purposes.

Facebook

In light of these musing, I decided I would try out Facebook – and, fortunately, the University of Bath has subscribed to Facebook, with currently 8,685 subscribers from the institution. (Note that, unlike many similar social networks, the institution, rather than an individual, needs to subscribe to the service – and the authentication is based on one’s email address). And a particularly note-worthy feature of Facebook is the integration across networks – there are many examples of friends spanning across universities (possibly friends from school or friends met at inter-collegiate activities, for example).

Profile Page

My profile page is illustrated. This has details of my friends together with a record of the date on which were selected (this struck me as rather cheesy – 9 Jan: “Brian and Pete Cliff are now friends“. And has for the double entendres of “Brian pokes Pete“. Ugh.)

A potentially very useful feature of the Mini-feed page is the ability to import RSS feeds, from blogs, for example.

The two key aspects of Facebook appear to be the network of people (friends) and participation in groups. Facebook users can join existing groups or set up a new group. The list of areas covered by the groups shows that Facebook is focussing on social aspects (with the possible exceptions of Business and Internet & Technology, none of the groupings covers academic disciplines.

Facebook; We Hate BUCS

Exploring the Internet & Technology section for the Bath network I discovered one use the service provides is to provide a forum for disgruntled users, with one group entitled “We All Hate BUCS” (BUCS being the Bath University Computing Services).

How should departments respond to such criticisms? Clearly it is not possible (not even desirable) to ban such discussions. Rather, I would argue, support services (in particular) may wish to visit Facebook (if their institution has subscribed to the service) and explore what students are talking about.

I would also argue that if students are spending significant amount of time using Facebook, then it is in the institution’s interest to ensure that they are using the service effectively. Perhaps advising students on a course how the RSS feeds related to the course can be embedded in Facebook would be a sensible approach to take.

A Radical Suggestion

Wikipedia has a comprehensive article on Facebook. The article claims that in April 2006 it was claimed that Facebook was making over $1 million per week in advertising revenue. If this is the case, we might ask ourselves whether institutions should spend tax-payer’s money in seeking to develop social networking services as part of an e-learning environment. Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective to explore the possibilities of using services such as Facebook to support e-learning, rather than trying to compete with such a successful and profitable existing service?

Such a suggestion is slightly tongue-in-cheek (Facebook is lacking various features which would be desirable in a system used in a more formal learning context). But if students are making intensive use of Facebook, don’t we have to ask ourselves such questions?