I recently commented that I was pleased to see that the JISC-funded EDINA service was engaging with a number of externally-hosted Web 2.0 services in order to “improve engagement with their user communities”. In my post I made an observation on the release of a Facebook application (one which provides access to the Suncat service). I was pleased to see that EDINA are willing to explore the potential of Facebook for providing a platform for accessing their service – in some circles Facebook is regarded as unacceptable, perhaps because of concerns over data lock-in and privacy concerns, but also on what might be regarded as ‘ideological grounds’. My view is that if such applications can deliver useful services to the users in a cost-effective manner, then that will probably be acceptable.

In response to my post Nicola Osborne, a developer at EDINA, commented:

If anyone has comments on the search app or features that should be added we’d be very keen to hear them as the gradual migration over to the new version of Facebook seems like a good time to reassess how our app is working and could be improved and expanded (it’s very basic at the moment).

Nicola’s comment is very timely as I think there is a need for a debate on exactly what it is we (developers and users) might expect from the development of such Facebook applications. We will also need to consider the resource implications in developing such applications and the longer term maintenance and support costs. 

The Facebook page for the Suncat page is shown below. It should be noticed that as well as the search interface itself (shown at the bottom of the image) the page also provides information about the service, allows users to become ‘fans’ of the application, provides a ‘minifeed’ of information about the application and has a ‘wall’ which provides a forum for user comments. What this would seem to provide is an open environment for discussions about an application and mechanisms for potentially for making contact with fans of the application.

If we look at the Copac Facebook application page developed by the JISC-funded MIMAS service we can see a related approach. Here we can see how the application can be added to (embedded within) other Facebook pages. I can also see my Facebook friends who have added this application. And as, in this case, the people shown are people whose views on digital library applications I trust this can potentially help me in deciding whether to install the application. And if, for example, my Facebook page is updated with a message saying that 50 of my friends have installed the Copac or Suncat application I’m likely to wonder what I’m missing. And if I install the application this may influence my Facebook friends. So the viral marketing aspect has the potential to enhance usage of a service which is made available in Facebook.

But if you actually use either of these application you will find that the experience is rather disappointing. Once you’ve entered a serach term and pressed submit you then leave the Facebook environment and are taken to the Suncat or Copac service. You do not have the seamless environment within Facebook you might expect.  And your use of of the service does not have any ‘social’ context – if you have installed the application you are not informed of the numbers of your friends who have searched for a particular item. And you might be relieved at this, as you may not want your friends to see what you have been searching for. But if this is the case, if searching isn’t actually a social activity, what then is the point of providing the service within a social networking environment such as Facebook?

The answer to this question may be that the marketing aspects that social networks can provide is regarded as beneficial to the organisation developing the service. And as we have seen with popular applications such as Firefox large numbers of users are sometimes willing to associate themselves with an application (and I’ve just noticed that the Twitter application page in Facebook has 10,106 fans).  So perhaps a decision to develop a Facebook application would be one made by the marketing group for a service. Or perhaps there is an expectation that a thriving support service can be developed within popular social networking environments, in which case the decision would be made by those involved in providing the support infrastructure for a service.

But perhaps, based on the experiences I’ve had, we shouldn’t expect too much in terms of the functionality which a Facebook application can provide.  Is this a limitation of Facebook as a platform, or is it simply that, as Nicola has said about the Suncat application, the service is still very basic at present and EDINA are still exploring how the application might be developed? Or might Facebook applications have a useful role to play, but only in certain application areas. Earlier this year Seb Chan, on the blog described the Artshare Facebook application, developed by the Brooklyn Museum (one of the pioneers in a number of uses of Web 2.0 services). As Seb described:

This allows you to add selected objects from museum collections to your Facebook profile. These object images then link to your museum’s collection records, the idea being that people can effectively ‘friend’ objects in your collection, promote them for you on their profiles, and drive traffic back to your website.

Are the benefits, then, in providing access to objects which can, in some way, drive traffic back to your service? Or could Facebook provide an environment for games which provide educational benefits (Scrabulous for remedial English teaching, perhaps?)  But are there any significant benefits to be gained, apart from the marketing aspects, from providing search interface to services from within Facebook?