What to do about Facebook?

Ah, Facebook.

On the one hand:

…this is the single most dynamic, engaged and engaging platform for user generated content that there has ever been. 500 million people, converging on a single web application. Wait, read that again – 500 MILLION people. That’s a noticeable chunk of the entire global population.

That’s a totally, utterly and completely insane amount of user penetration. And when you use it (I don’t, much, but I watch my wife and her friends and I dip in to see what is happening every so often) – it’s obvious why. Facebook is slick, it’s user-focused and it’s all about the connections. Critical mass + friends + photos? Of course it works.

On the other hand:

…Facebook is regularly cited – actually, cited is way too gentle a word – screamed about – for being EVIL. Reasons vary, but they tend to focus on what is seen as a hugely lax approach to privacy. Actually, it’s layer upon layer of laxness – from totally baffling privacy controls to requiring a PhD to delete your account to the latest “facetracking by default” functionality. It’s a general “don’t give a ****” thing, it appears.

When it isn’t privacy, it’s concerns about “domination of the web” (particularly now things such as the Like Button are out in the wild) or how closed their so-called “Open Graph” is in reality, or the possibility that Zuckerberg did something wrong once or – well, go read “10 reasons to delete your Facebook account” for some more.

And here’s the tension, beautifully summed up by Jason Scott in a stunningly entertaining rant about Facebook. Cover your body organs if you’re of a sensitive disposition:

People aren’t just eating Facebook’s Shit Sherbet of overnight upgrades, of lack of guarantees and standards, of enveloping tendrils of web standard breaking. They are shoveling it down. They’re grabbing two crazy handfuls of Facebook every minute of every day when they’re not forced to walk down a hallway or look up from their phones or ipads or laptops or consoles. They’re grabbing buckets of Facebook and finding ways to shove it down with one hand while pawing around for a second bucket.  People have bought the fuck in.

So what to make of this? For someone like me – a generalist who straddles two very different groups of people – the tension is very often felt. I have geeks in one ear talking about open standards, pushing for privacy controls and hoping upon hope that the Semantic Web will get here one day. In the other ear I hear people who couldn’t give a monkeys about open standards, probably have “password” as their password, and seem remarkably relaxed about posting pictures of themselves hunched over a bucket bong. With these people there’s no denying the pleasure, the engagement, the rich content and the opportunities that Facebook offers.

On thing seems sure: rant as much as you like, but there’s no escaping. Facebook – in fact, big companies of all sizes – will dominate the internet landscape for a long time to come, and they’ll always find success.  There’s a reason why there is no alternative to Twitter, no alternative to Google and no alternative to Facebook: these are the places where everyone goes. It’s horrible, and uncomfortable, and we all wish people weren’t so terribly dumb, but the fact of the matter is – people choose social, and they do it at the expense of – well, lots of things: privacy, openness, safety. The utility of these tools is easy to underestimate in the general scheme of things, especially if you’re a geek – but utility, ease, sociability are the non-geek world’s open standards, the defining shape of their lives.

This seems to be the sting in the tail of large-scale social web activity. In order for it to be compelling, it requires a large social graph. In order for a large social graph to work, you normally need a big company or concern behind the scenes. Where there’s a big company, there’s money. Where there’s money, ethics almost always start being eroded. Bang.

I don’t think anyone should be under any illusions that everyone is going to delete their Facebook account (when they can work out how) just yet. Learning, awareness, going into this with eyes (yours, or your institutions’) seems to be the only possible answer to the question in the title. A moderate, not polarised approach.

Clearly I’m getting old.

The diminishing returns of size

I gave a workshop last week to a bunch of museums in the North East entitled “Bootstrapping the Web”. Well, actually, it started off as that but following a questionnaire asking what they’d like to learn, the focus changed a bit to “How to do social media well”. I’m hoping the attendees learnt something – I certainly did, which is always great when you’re delivering stuff like this.

One of the things that is readily apparent, both from this workshop and from many of the conversations I have and see, is that many institutions – museums, galleries, businesses – have climbed over the first hurdle when it comes to social media. Many of them – more than you would expect – now have a social media presence. Usually this is a Facebook page or a Twitter account, sometimes it is a collection of Flickr pictures, sometimes a blog.

On first glance, these networks are of value because of their enormous size. Facebook currently claims 500 million active users (that’s, what, about a 14th of the world’s population). Twitter has 200 million or so (or is it a mere 15 million? who knows).

At that kind of scale, though, these networks are just sub-silos of the web. Just “having a presence” on Facebook or Twitter means as little as “having a web page”. We all learnt a long time ago that creating a web page was merely the tiniest tip of the biggest iceberg and that all the hard work comes after that: maintaining, driving traffic, linking, content, content, content. These networks differ because of the ease with which they allow network effects to bloom, and they have power when there is a personal nature to the interaction. The size itself isn’t by any means a guarantee of success, and nor is the hype.

This is a big lesson that many institutions – and people, for that matter – are only just  beginning to learn. Social media and social networks aren’t a golden bullet. The ease with which you can set up a presence belies the hard and clever work that is required to maintain this presence.

The thing we talked about a lot in the workshop last week was about how you put social media into a strategic framework: one which asks “should I be doing this at all?” as regularly as asking “how should I be doing this?”. I’ve always argued that we needed a JFDI beginning in order to kick start a more strategic conversation, but the reason for doing it should be made very clear right at the beginning. I (shameless plug) talk a lot about this in my book.

Gartner casts a light on what is likely to happen in the near future: many institutions will fall down the trough of disillusionment as they realise that social media isn’t the save-all that they thought it might have been, and we’ll see interest wane as Facebook pages remain unfriended, Flickr pictures aren’t looked at, and blog posts aren’t visited. The people who have thought about things a bit harder and a bit more strategically – those who are in it for the long game – will weather this storm and realise that the ROI on social media comes later on, and only with more strategic thinking.

All noise, no signal. Lifestreaming is a timesink

The fascination with various “lifestreaming” tools continues apace. Brian Kelly has been getting particularly excited about the regulation (or not, as his fellow Twitterers are shouting) of these tools. “We should have standards” he says. “No! Standards are boring”, everyone replies…

In this particular area I have to say I pretty much fall on the side of the anti-standards bods – lifestreaming should be about spontaneity and not regulation – but there are still some interesting issues about the modes of use of these tools, and I can understand what Brian is pointing out.

The reason why there are issues is pretty clear: lifestreaming is a paradigm shift; it’s disruptive and hence different from everything that has come before. In some ways, tools like Twitter are IM-like in the way they work. In others they’re a little bit more like a chat room. In others, they’re like an email thread and in yet others more like a discussion board.

There’s no surprise therefore that we’re all a bit confused. Throw into the recipe tools like Twitterfeed (passes feeds to your Twitter stream), Hashtags (enables you to tag tweets), Twitter Facebook app (feeds your tweets to Facebook status) or Twittervision (type ‘L:’ for location…). Then lightly saute before throwing in some finely chopped Pownce (it’s the new Twitter, only ‘better’) or Jaiku (Google bought it so it must be good..) or Tumblr (who really knows what ‘microblogging’ is anyway?)…and it’s hardly surprising that we’re feeling the need for some sanity.

This is classic Gartner hype in action. The emergence and adoption of these technologies is rapid, exciteable, reactionary. Darwinian evolution is choking the ideas that don’t work and elevating those that do.

Take the Twitter Facebook app as an example. Both Brian and I installed it at pretty much the same time. It links your Twitter updates to your Facebook status. All good, you think – I only have to do this once, updates both – excellent. Then you realise that actually the use mode is different: Twitter isn’t being used as a “what are you doing” tool (the original intention) but instead has become a way of having a conversation with your fellow users. In this context, linking it to Facebook makes no sense, as the following screen shot demonstrates. Shortly afterwards, both Brian and I (independently) removed it.

twitter on facebook

In “conversation” mode, Twitter doesn’t actually work – if I’m friends with person B and they’re friends with person C then all is fine from my perspective if I’m having a conversation with B. If, however, B is having a conversation with C, I just get B’s side of the discussion. And that, frankly, is rubbish…

Pownce might be about to help out here – it gives you the option of posting comments to public/all friends/selected friend. But then we’re really back to square one: sending a message to “public” and you might as well use Twitter. Send it to a single friend or a group and you might as well use email or Facebook messaging.

And here, for me, is the rub. I’m going to go out on the line here (always risky) and suggest that essentially none of these tools actually adds anything. Let me rephrase that. All of these tools do add huge amounts of noise, but to me none of them add signal. Sure, they’re fun. Sure, I check mine every so often and take part in the conversation, but they’re not doing anything useful for me apart from…er…um…

It’s a bit like those 3D world conversations when you discuss the various technical aspects of the 3D world and actually find after an hour or two you haven’t actually shared *anything* useful. It’s technology for technologies sake. I think we’re getting caught up in the fact that we *can* rather than finding a gap in need and responding to that gap.

This is not to say that lifestreaming doesn’t have a place. I can see that during a conference, being able to send comments is useful. I can see that the mobile integration factor is a pretty exciting area of development. I can see how this might help during an emergency, or during a live event like a talk as a way of garnering feedback. Here on my desktop, however, it’s just a distraction, a timesink.

Within an institution, I’m also failing to see the applications. And this is where Brian and I both converge and diverge all at the same time. I think he has a point in trying to establish the modes of use, settle these down and try and get some clarity. But unlike Brian, I’m not convinced that institutionally there is anything in it. It may be that these tools and modes of use mature, and once we’ve all skidded through the trough of disillusionment we’ll find we’re in more informed place. But for now, I’m watching (and taking part…!) with an air of cynicism.

What do you think? Do you use these tools? Do you think they have a place in institutions? Should we look to standardise, either technology or modes of use? Comments please!

2008 (a little late…)

If you write a blog, I’m discovering that you pretty much have to do a January post with either a review of the previous year or a punt at what the future holds. I’ll leave the review bit to others, but here’s my personal mind-dump for the big things of 2008…

Facebook, Schmasebook

I reckon Facebook as it is now is going to fall way off the public radar during 2008. The disclaimer “as it is now” is my get-out clause – if Facebook find a way of changing the rules around applications, finally expose their Social Graph data to the world or make some serious amends to browse and search then they may have a hope. But right now, here’s a typical Facebook experience:

“Hey, I’ve been invited to this Facebook thing. Now let me see. Wow, Bob is there. And Jon. And Jane. I’ll invite them all to be my friends. Cool. Look, Bob got married. He looks old! I can’t believe he has kids. Look – Jane went to the shops. Now…um..Right, might post some pictures. Nice. Someone added a comment. Cool. Now I’m going to look for my mate Jon…Damn, there are 4 million Jon’s. Never mind…Er…Who the hell is this inviting me to be a friend? I never heard of her…Wait, WTF is a FunWall? Why have I got 35 invites? I don’t need this noise. Life is too busy. For now I might just add Facebook emails to my spam filter…Oh crap, all my friends have joined AnotherDamnSocialNetwork.com. What, you mean I have to re-input all my data? Sod that, I’m off”

Facebook has also reminded us of something else: we lose touch with some people for a very good reason. 🙂

Some say Twitter is the new Facebook. And although I don’t actually do it much (yeah, ‘course I got an account…) I’d say that the single best thing about Facebook is the updates feature, which is basically…Twitter.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the geek adoption of Twitter goes mainstream in ’08.

Signal / Noise

Dunbar wrote about the 150 being the maximum number of individuals that any one person can keep in touch with at any one time. I don’t know of any measures for information input but as RSS continues to spread, so I reckon we’ll hear more about what we should do about the sheer quantity of incoming material. Certainly I’m seeing a lot of buzz (not all just about it being January and everyone having a good spring clean..) and the beginnings of some products (AideRSS, SocialStream, etc etc) which help us cut down on the inputs. We all took to RSS because it lets us do more with less: I’ve just cut down my feed list massively and I’m still trawling through 400+ articles a day. Something is gonna break :-). While you’re at it, check out this great post which Mr Pope sent over to me. Similar kind of sentiment about keeping up with tech – or not, more to the point…

More “Everyware”

The iPhone will obviously be seen as the beginning of the mobile web, although of course the reality is that many of us have been “browing” online since that wap thing back in the 90’s. User adoption as always drives public perception which drives investment which drives adoption…

The iPhone does two major things in one blast:

1. The “usually crap” experience you have during mobile web surfage is buried under full-page zoomable browsing, easy(ish) typing and widgets, all of which manage to surface the web but without the chuff you usually get around mobile browsing. In short, the iPhone is primarily a sexy and really usable interface. For many people – especially the queues of teens you see hanging around O2 shops where they have the iPhone/iPodTouch available to fiddle with – this is enough.

2. Apple have done a very cunning deal in the UK with The Cloud whereby all iPhone users get access to any hotspot as part of their contract. In one swoop, you’ve got on-the go internet access at a huge range of hotspots with no hassle..

Two continuing and evolving approaches: RSS and OpenID

We tech types might all be 100% familiar with the format and ease of use of RSS. Continuing support from browsers (IE friendly feed view, etc) means that it’s going to keep hitting the mainstream over the coming months. I’m also willing to bet, however, that new tech will appear around OPML and feed analysis. I’m also pretty sure that we will see more of RSS as a portable data format (for instance, getting search results like these from Technorati) – not “just some news headlines” but a further extension of RSS, and a great example of how to extend a simple format to do interesting things.

OpenID is another approach which has been around a looong time but is finally seeing some serious heavy hitters in the form of Google, IBM and Flickr joining the party. I’m also noticing many more sites supporting OpenID – maybe some museums during 2008…?

And finally to the biggest keyword of them all for 2008: APML..

Attention, please

The notion of “Attention Data” is already chugging around tech circles pretty hard, and has been for a couple of years. The underlying question about the openness of the Social Graph is integral to this, and has to a certain extent driven AD back into the limelight. Fundamentally, we’re all giving any site we visit something incredibly valuable: our attention. Anything you do online carries with it an implication about what you like and who you are – this is understandably very powerful information, both for developers and advertisers. Attention Profile Markup Language (APML) is an XML based standard for attempting to capture this activity, and I reckon it’s going to be big in the next months and years – not just capturing it but also doing useful and interesting stuff with it as well…

And that, as they say, is it for now…Let’s see where it all goes…