How large is the Facebook network at your institution? The network at the University of Bath has 10,199 members (on 7 July 2007). This sounds impressive, but the numbers aren’t as large as those for the University of Leeds (26,944). Manchester (25,644) , Nottingham (24,021), Sheffield (19,939), or, up in Scotland, Edinburgh with 21,396 members.

These figures are impressive as members need to opt-in (unlike, say, the numbers of users who may be automatically registered for in-house applications such as email or Blackboard).

On the other hand these figures don’t provide any indication of the active numbers of users. And the figures will be inflated as, unlike registrations for in-house services, members will not be removed once they leave the institution.

So how might be go about benchmarking use of Facebook, in order to monitor trends, which can help institutions to identify whether Facebook might be an appropriate platform to support learning activities and communications with students – and also to make comparisons with the take-up of similar in-house and national services (such as JANET’s forthcoming national Collaborate project)?

An initial stab might be to get the statistics available on Facebook on the size of the networks in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. A technical approach might be to write a screenscraper to gather these statistics (assuming they are not available via an API), but a collaborative approach might be to engage the community in finding their own statistics and documenting the figures in a wiki (or, more appropriately, perhaps) in a shared Google Spreadsheet file).

But how do we get an indication for whether the networks are actually being used? Perhaps we could look at figures for the numbers of new groups which are set up, the numbers of posting to groups, the numbers of applications installed and the size of personal networks. But how easy if it to get such statistics? We need to find out if such information is available via Facebook APIs.

An alternative approach would be to interview students. But if we do this we’ll need to remember that the findings may not necessarily be valid across the sector – Facebook seems to be popular in some institutions but not others. And it might be interesting to explore the reasons why this may be. The University for Warwick, which provides a blogging service for all its students, has 15,637 users on its Facebook network. Are these two services in competition with each other, I wonder, or do they provide complementary functionality? Or perhaps the popularity differs across different departments?

Other, tangential, approaches might be to look at the size of popular cross-institutional networks, such as them The Great Facebook Race – British network, which currently has 52,497 members, or to look at the number of Facebook page impressions, which according to an article on Opening Up Facebook Registration Fuels 89% Jump in Traffic published on 8 July 2007:

In terms of pages viewed, the number of pages of content viewed at in May 2007 increased to 15.8 billion, up 143% versus May 2006 and 121% versus September. An average visit to the site lasted 186 minutes in May 2007, a 35% increase versus the same month last year.

Some interesting research possibilities, I think. And also valuable data which is needed before institutions start to make significant decisions about use of Facebook or deployment of alternative services in-house.

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