So, as I said in my last post, this will be the year Facebook fades away for many of us. It won't disappear - I'll probably have a Facebook profile still, but I just won't use it much, rather like I have a LinkedIn profile that I never do anything with. So, before it goes and we become all dismissive about it, here are some of the good things the Facebook experience taught me. I am focusing here on personal lessons rather than the more general business models, or social network success factors which have been widely commented on (e.g. having an open API):
- Social networking wasn't just for teenagers - prior to about May 2007 I had a few accounts in various social networking sites, but none of them did much. I read about kids loving Bebo, MySpace etc but I could often be found spouting the view that if you were over thirty they were of academic interest only, ie we liked to research them, but not actually use them (see below). Then Facebook reached a tipping point in terms of the people I knew on it (and these were people I liked and respected), and within a couple of weeks I was using it daily, updating my status regularly and building up a network.
- The social dimension is important in a professional context - my Facebook network is consitituted from professional peers who I like. Whereas LinkedIn seems to be professional peers who are potentially good for business. So what I discovered through Facebook is that the intersection of the social and the professional is what is important in my network, not just one or the other. This doesn't mean I have to have met the people face to face, but usually through blogs we have some form of dialogue. This is of course something you know instinctively in a face to face work context - it's not just who you work with, but who you like working with that is important. But finding a means of extending this without it being intrusive has been something Facebook has given me.
- You only understand it by doing it - as many people have commented (e.g. Ewan), in order to understand web 2.0 you have to act 2.0. I think too many academics are guilty of seeing social networking, or any popular tool, as something to be researched, but not something to be experienced and used. This is both rather a snobbish attitude and also misses the point. Signing up for an account, dropping in for a couple of weeks, doing a survey and then disappearing does not gain you an understanding of how these things are really being used.
- Control of the student dialogue is over - if it was ever real in the first place. We can provide some official systems for students to use, but we can't make them use them. Through developing the OU Course Profiles app we've seen some students using Facebook as their preferred mechanism for discussion over the official VLE. They were doing this anyway without our app, so the question is whether you ignore it or support it (and what 'support' means in this context) - but controlling or denying it are not options. We have to accept this in higher education - it's a messy, disaggregated world now.
- Universities need to be more flexible organisationally - the OU Facebook app came about because Tony had a chat with Liam and Stuart and they did it in their spare time. When I got involved it was to get some buy out of their time. The problem is that the OU, like all universities, doesn't really have the right organisational units or structures to deal with this new world. We have toyed with the idea of setting up a Facebook project, which would need official recognition and funding, have deliverables, a timeframe and end point. But, if you accept my proposal in the last post that actually we need to get used to a continual stream of tools we love for a few months, then you don't want a 'Facebook project'. You don't really want a project structure at all, you want people to coalesce around a technology, play with it, then move on to something else. This is a very difficult approach to realise in a large organisation where people have to be accountable for their time.
- Fun is the killer app - a fact not only ignored, but positively treated with disdain by designers of educational software (at least in higher ed). Facebook was fun to use, your average VLE isn't.
I wonder if I'll be writing a similar post about Twitter in a year's time.