In the opening plenary talk on Hands On The Internetat the Museums and the Web 2008 conference Michael Geist mentioned the popularity of Facebook in Canada – apparently Canada has the highest per capita Facebook usage in the world. And, as described in a blog post on the talk by arkrausehardie Michael described the “enormous pressure a sort of flash-mob FaceBook group can bring to bare (sic!) on public policy such as the recent group started by Geist on copyright issues in Canada, now with more than 40,000 members“.

The interest in the potential of Facebook for engaging with a museum’s user community was described in a number of papers at the conference. For example Shelley Bernstein’s paper on “Where Do We Go From Here? Continuing with Web 2.0 at Brooklyn Museum” described the ArtShare Facebook application they had developed to “share works of art from Museums around the world“. And a paper by Brian Kelly and colleagues at the Canada Science and Technology Museum on “Social Presence: New Value For Museums And Networked Audiences”  described “specific experiments with social media, including a detailed analysis of a Facebook group used by the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation’s Membership Program“. In addition the paper described “two theoretical models – the “Innovation Radar” and genre analysis – to help analyze the nature of the opportunities for innovation, and to develop a better understanding of the distinctive characteristics of alternate communication channels“.

And yet in some circle such use of Facebook is being derided with comments such as “It’s a closed garden“, “Its popularity is on the wane” or “Twitter is a better development environment” being made. I have to say that I find that such comments tend to miss the point.  A recent post on “The Becoming Uninteresting Complex – Facebook versus Twitter” commented on the “pretty irrational questionings like “is Twitter replacing Facebook?“, Twitter doesn’t allow socialization. It simply allow instant interactions“.

And as can be seen from a Siteanalytics snapshot which compares usage of Facebook and Twitter,  it you want to make inappropriate comparisons, it’s Twitter which fares badly.

Facebook and Twitter Usage

Making these points, I should add that we shouldn’t explore the potential of Facebook uncritically. But the early adopters do acknowledge some of the concerns which need to be recognised. Dawson et al have commented that “There are, however, a variety of potential pitfalls with social networking sites. One concern is whether such sites are a fad or flash in the pan“. The paper goes on to add “Issues of privacy are another important factor. Users of social networking sites appear to be willing to live with great compromises in their privacy. However, even these broad boundaries have been tested a number of times. Facebook, for example, has risked alienating its users in controversies such as the introduction of the news feed in 2006 (boyd, 2006a), and the more recent introduction of the “Beacon” in 2007 (Hirsh, 2007).

So let’s be realistic and continue the experimentation and debate. But let’s also be critical of our preferred environments.  And although I’m a happy user of Twitter and participated in its use at MW2008, looking at the hashtag data for the mw2008 tag I would acknowledge that it was used primarily by a small group who knew each other – and indeed went out drinking together.  Twitter can be useful for some – but it’s not necessarily the killer application for everybody.