Back in November 2007 I wrote a post on UK Universities On Facebook, shortly after Facebook had announced that organisations could have a presence on their social networking service. I commented that a search for organisations containing the word ‘university’ revealed a total of 76 hits which included, in alphabetical order, the following UK Universities: Aston, Cardiff, Kent and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Now, over 6 months later, what is the position of UK University pages on Facebook? Well on 15th June 2008 there were over 500 hits for a search for organisations containing the word ‘university’ (the exact numbers aren’t provided). This will include details of University departments and student clubs and societies, so the exact numbers will probably be confusing. What is interesting to observe is the numbers of fans of each University, which is used to order the search results. The Open University Facebook page is the top of all University pages, with 7,539 fans (with the University of Michigan way behind in second place with 5,313 fans (up from a count of 2,874 a month ago). The other most popular UK Universities are Aston University (2,976 fans), Royal Holloway (1,765), Aberystwyth University (1,655 fans), University of Central Lancashire (1,475 fans), Keele University (1,420 fans), Cardiff University (1,357 fans) and the University of Surrey (1,166 fans).

There seems to be a fairly consistent pattern of usage being taken to these pages. As can be seen form the accompanying image, institutions seem to be providing a series of useful links to the main areas of the institutional Web site on the right hand menu. The main body of the content is typically addresses and contacts details, together with news feeds which are automatically embedded using an Facebook RSS reader application.

In addition to this information which is either very brief or is dynamically embedded from other sources, there are wall posts and other messages which may need to be monitored and responded to. So there are resource implications in having a presence in Facebook. But there are also benefits as well, and the Open University and Aston University, for example, seem to be doing well from the stake they have claimed.

In addition to possible concerns over the costs of managing the resources and dialogue, people have expressed concerns over data lock-in and the licence conditions associated with use of Facebook. I would argue that if you manage your data in an open environment which is external to Facebook (e.g. your own institutional RSS feed or use of Flickr or YouTube for access to photographs and videos) then the data lock-in issue should not be of concern. And, as I’ve suggested previously, surely we should be encouraging third parties to make use of our marketing materials. And if they can make money out of the materials, then this can help to ensure the viability of their service.

Northumbria University poster, seen in Taipei, TaiwanFinally we should remember that our institutions have a well-established tradition of making use of delivery channels which are not interoperable – the physical world of magazines, newsletters and bill-board advertisements.

Indeed when I was in Taiwan recently I came across a poster advertising Northumbria University. My reaction was to applaud Northumbria for getting its message across to where potential students were, rather than to criticise them for their use of a non-interoperable dead tree delivery mechanism. We need to remember that interoperability isn’t always everything. Ask the marketing people – I suspect they’ll confirm this.

And some news just in. On 12thJune 2008 the Techcrunch blog reported that Facebook [Is] No Longer The Second Largest Social Network– but rather than declining in popularity as some predicted (or perhaps hoped), Facebook has now overtaken MySpace in popularity, as the accompanying image shows.

Facebook vs MySpace Usage Statistics

Perhaps the popularity of the Open University page in Facebook isn’t so surprising considering the large numbers of Facebook users there are. Now that we have evidence of the large numbers of users and have seen patterns of usage from the early adopters, what reasons can there be for institutions not to engage with Facebook- whether this is simply creating a page containing RSS feeds and a set of links back to the institutional Web site or creating a Facebook application such as the Open University’s Course Profile app (initially described by Tony Hirst as a ‘skunkwork’ project, but now, it seems, becoming mainstream)? And remember the need to factor in not only the resource implications of doing this, but also the missed opportunity costs of not doing so.