Are you pleased, angry or indifferent to Facebook developments (photograph taken at Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow)

Looking at the Evidence

What is your take on recent Facebook developments? Are you feeling angry and have perhaps already deleted your Facebook account as have one or two of my Facebook followers? Or perhaps you are indifferent or even unaware of recent Facebook developments. In which case you are probably just using Facebook as a tool and aren’t taking part in the discussions about Facebook and privacy.

Shortly before a trip to Glasgow this weekend I asked for suggestions on places to visit and things to do. I decided to use my three main social networks in order to gain some anecdotal evidence on current usage of Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

In response to my query I received three responses from four people on Twitter (including one who suggested that I should visit Edinburgh!), 16 comments from fifteen people on Facebook and four comments on Google+.

Whilst that would suggest that Facebook is the most effective social networking environment for me, there is a need to related the numbers of responses to the size of the social network.   But since I have 2,583 followers on Twitter, 625 friends on Facebook and 417 followers on Google+ this seems to confirm the personal value of Facebook to me.

But what about the bigger picture? In a post entitled “Why Facebook’s new Open Graph makes us all part of the web underclass” by Adrian Smart and published recently on the Guardian Web site Adrian argued that “If you’re not paying for your presence on the web, then you’re just a product being used by an organisation bigger than you“. This was, I felt, a very elitist article, with the suggestion that:

When you own a domain you’re a first class citizen of the web. A householder and landowner. What you can do on your own website is only very broadly constrained by law and convention. You can post the content you like. You can run the software you want, including software you’ve written or customised yourself. And you can design it to look the way you want.

suggesting that you are a second class citizen if you primarily use your institutional Web site or, as I do. on the site which constrains the plugins used and look-and-feel for this blog. Actually, you’re worse than a second class citizen:

When you use a free web service you’re the underclass. At best you’re a guest. At worst you’re a beggar, couchsurfing the web and scavenging for crumbs. It’s a cliché but worth repeating: if you’re not paying for it, you’re aren’t the customer, you’re the product. 

In this elitist view, it seems that unless you control your own domain you’re a member of the underclass. The article goes on to take a sideswipe at Facebook, in particular. But it was amusing when I saw the tweet from the Guardian’s @currybet (Martin Belam) which pointed out that:

That “peril of Facebook” post by @adrianshort has 2,000 Likes and has been read nearly 3,000 times in our Facebook app

Yes, it seems that the “Web underclass” is willing to share their engagement with their peers  using a Facebook  Like or the walled garden provided by the Guardian Facebook app – and in quite large numbers.

Avoiding The Echo Chamber

I have described a polarised situation in which posts describing the various problems with Facebook such as the reasons series of articles which have described how Facebook tracks you online even after you log outFacebook denies cookie tracking allegations, Facebook fixes cookie behavior after logging out and US congressmen ask FTC to investigate Facebook cookies.

But whilst Nik Cubrilovic, author of the post in which he accused Facebook of tracking its users even if they log out of the social network has subsequently written a post on how Facebook made changes to the logout process in which he describes how the cookies in question now behave as they should (they still exist, but they no longer send back personally-identifiable information after you log out) we are still seeing tweets in which the initial findings are being repeated.  We also seem to fail to hear other perspectives including the comment from Facebook engineer Gregg Stefancik:

I’m an engineer who works on these systems. I want to make it clear that there was no security or privacy breach. Facebook did not store or use any information it should not have. Like every site on the internet that personalizes content and tries to provide a secure experience for users, we place cookies on the computer of the user. Three of these cookies on some users’ computers included unique identifiers when the user had logged out of Facebook. However, we did not store these identifiers for logged out users. Therefore, we could not have used this information for tracking or any other purpose. In addition, we fixed the cookies so that they won’t include unique information in the future when people log out.

I feel there is a need to have a better understanding of the complexities of the issues and  be willing to listen to the views of others and not just respond to views expressed on ‘echo chambers‘ such as Twitter.

What Can We Learn From Facebook?

In order to move the discussion on from the Twitter echo chamber I’d like to summarise some aspects of Facebook which should be considered in more depth.

“Seamless sharing” could be an appealing concept: A recent post on the Bashki blog announced “Facebook Wants to Change the Way You Share” and described how “Facebook wants to remove as much friction from sharing as possible so that it’s seamlessly integrated with a user’s online activity“. When I heard the term ‘seamless sharing’ it reminded me of the JISC’s vision, over 10 years ago, for the Distributed National Electronic Resource (the DNER as it was initially referred to).   As I described in a poster entitled “Approaches To Indexing In The UK Higher Education Community” presented at the WWW 9 conference in May 2000: “The DNER aims to provide seamless access to electronic resources provided by JISC service providers“. The ideas in the paper were a reflection of the vision for the DNER described by Reg Carr, Director of the Oxford University Library Services who, in a paper on “Creating the Distributed National Electronic Resource, argued that “if the DNER is to deliver the goods in the way envisaged, it will have to do so in a carefully integrated, flexible and seamless way“.

Let’s be honest and admit that in higher education we too are looking to provide a seamless sharing environment.  This is a positive term and we should avoid misinterpretting this term.

We want to understand and respond to user interactions: I recently attended a meeting on learning analytics which Wikipedia describes asthe measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimising learning and the environments in which it occurs“.

Back in 2008 Dave Pattern in a post on “Free Book Usage Data Available from the University of Huddersfield” described how the Library Service had “released a major portion of our book circulation and recommendation data“. Eighteen months later in a post on “Non/low library usage and final grades” Dave described how analysis of the library usage data had showed that “it’s those students who graduate with a third-class honour who are the most likely to be non or low-users of e-resources“. In this case analysis of user interactions (and non-interactions) can lead to an institution taking actions, which could include promotion of appropriate Library resources, training, etc.

Facebook  also analyses its user attention data.  If it notices that I am following England’s rugby team’s exploits in the Rugby World Cup it might also respond to failings, but rather than providing an advert for a Library training course, it might suggest I console myself with a pint of Carling!

Walled gardens can provide a nurturing environment: The term ‘walled garden’ is widely used to dismiss Facebook as a closed environment. Facebook clearly was a closed environment when it was launched, with access restricted to those working in approved academic institutions. However now anyone can have a Facebook account (including organisations) and content can be made public too all or access restricted (in ways not easily achieved on conventional Web sites).  Facebook can be used as a platform for walled garden application, with users needing to install the app in order to access the content – but since standard Facebook content can be published openly it would probably be incorrect to describe Facebook as a walled garden, unless we wish to use the term to describe Intranets.  However a mobile phone app which can only be deployed on a singly platform could, possibly, be described as a walled garden – and as several institutions are developing such apps we need to avoid inconsistencies in the terminology we are using.

In addition to the need to be more rigourous in defining the term there is also a need to reflect on the potential benefits of walled gardens.  I have heard a walled garden being described a providing a ‘managed’ or ‘nurturing’ environment. The institutional VLE may be regarded as a walled garden, but this point is very rarely heard when the term is being used to dismiss technologies one doesn’t approve of.

Users understand the need for sustainable business models: I have always been rather bemused by the statement: “if you’re not paying for a service you’re the product“. When I watch the Rugby World Cup matches on ITV I can also be described as ‘the product’.  ITV isn’t broadcasting the matches as a favour to me and other sports’ fans: it’s doing so in order to make money from the associated advertising.  And just as TV viewers understand the business models so too will users of social networking services understand that the service providers need to make money, both to fund the service and to provide a profit for the owners.

Let’s be honest and admit that faced with a choice of business models based on subscription services, advertising or even nationalised services, the evidence suggests that many users are willing to use services which provide adverts.

Isn’t there a lot which we can learn if we avoid the simple slogans and reflect on the Facebook experiences and successes which users seem to find beneficial?