Many organisations are looking at ways in which they can make use of the Facebook social network. The Open University, for example, provides details about its Facebook page (which, as I described last year seems to be one of the most popular University pages available in Facebook). Jo Alcock wrote a guest blog post in which she described how the University of Wolverhampton is using Facebook  – and she’s written a post on her blog in which she describes feedback she’s received  from “students who feel it is a good way to be kept up-to-date with Learning Centre services and resources as they use Facebook regularly“. And I could go on to describe other ways in which Facebook is being used – as Jo commented in her blog post “It certainly seems that the use of Facebook in libraries is becoming more mainstream“.

And yet others seem to argue that institutions shouldn’t be making use of Facebook. Stephen Downes, for example, responded to my post entitled Facebook Saves Lives by arguing that “You don’t need Facebook to send out appeals; it is merely one more channel in a universe full of channels ” before going on to conclude that “There is only one context in which Facebook should not be avoided: the current one, in which there is no decent alternative.” And Paul Walk in a post entitled Why I suppose I ought to become a Daily Mail reader was dismissive of Facebook’s popularity although admitting that he “wouldn’t stand in the way of people wanting to access Facebook“. Mike Ellis responded to Paul’s blog post and argued that  the scale of Facebook’s user base cannot be ignored: “100 million people is an enormous chunk to ignore for the sake of some niche argument about content ownership and portability which *those same users* couldn’t give a crap about“. In response Paul stated that he is not “arguing that we should ignore FaceBook – it has its uses for millions of people. I’m arguing that it does not follow that we should necessarily advocate it’s use to support teaching and learning in HE for example. There are reasons why it might not be appropriate.

Paul is quite right – there will be times when Facebook will not be appropriate. But I am more interested in exploring ways in which Facebook can be used to provide useful services whilst minimising the associated costs and dangers.

I have previously suggested that one approach to minimising the time and effort needed to provide content within Facebook for use by others is to simply provide access to content which is already available elsewhere on the Web.  This is an approach I use with RSS readers, Twitter, Slideshare, del.icio.us and other Facebook applications automatically surfacing content within Facebook which is created elsewhere.  I must admit that I had thought that this approach was obvious, but when I ran a workshop up in Edinburgh last year I found at least one organisation which was re-keying event details into Facebook.  No! Let’s use RSS to syndicate such content, please!

But over on Wendell Dryden’s qualities – communities – literacies blog Wendell recently pointed out that not all Facebook applications behave in a benign manner. Wendell mentioned  how I had “suggested a work-around which would allow users to harness Fb’s tremendous networking capabilities while still providing maximum access to content: host the content elsewhere, and then provide a link or feed into Fb” but described his experiences in using this approach with the Multiply photographic sharing service. However due to “Multiply’s somewhat complicated services structure” Wendell found that Multiply’s “smarmy behaviour” forced him into advertising “a beautiful photo calendar” to friends and colleague with whom he wished to share resources.

Now for Wendell “the search goes on. I still want a non-Facebook, real-world social networking site where learners I and can connect“. He feels that “Multiply’s too scammy. Yahoo’s lost at sea. This spring, I guess, I need to take another look at Orkut“.

But I suspect he may be on a time-consuming quest – and as I pointed out recently, Orkut currently doesn’t appear to have much to offer. And as I don’t use Multiple, Wendell’s specific concerns aren’t an issue for me. So for me the issue is how we can exploit the potential of today’s market leader whilst mimising various dangers.

Framework for Making Use of Facebook

I’d like to suggest that we might like to build a framework by considering the advantages and disadvantages of the two (?) main stakeholders: the institution and the individual.

The first draft of this framework is illustrated.  As can be seen use of the framework requires decision makers to document the benefits to the organisation and the user, the associated risks, the costs and resource implications for using the service and the missed opportunity costs of not using the service.

The framework requires that these issues are addressed within the context of the particular usage which is envisaged. So rather than resorting to generic slogans about the service itself ( “it’s a walled garden”, “it’s proprietary”, …) the discussion should focus on specific aims of the service and the way it is being used.

And finally there is a recognition that there will be prejudices and biases when using the framework, and suggested that it is better if such biases are openly acknowledged.

Is this approach useful? Is it worth developing further?