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According to this report, Facebook is about to make a dramatic change — a far more dramatic decision than the two controversial user-interface changes of the past year. Updates will soon be public by default, and searchable ala Twitter. The user will have to specify through a drop-down mechanism if they want their actions to be private.
This is clearly another move (along this Spring’s change to the User Interface and the addition of Vanity URLs) towards the functionality of Twitter. Within Twitter, users can search across the medium for trending topics, terms, or people with ease; historically, Facebook is built with walls to protect networks of friends.
Facebook’s obsession with moving in on Twitter’s territory is puzzling. It’s true that the small (and profitless) start-up has gotten a lot of publicity lately, both for its celebrity users and its ability to quickly spread news from all parts of the globe (Iranian protests in June, Mumbai attack last year). But Facebook’s growth is predicated on different strengths: private networks, photo albums, “real” people (empasizing real names over user names, for instance). Twitter doesn’t threaten any of those strengths.
Because of its greater security, far more personal information is included on facebook pages than Twitter. As Facebook is nothing without this user-generated content, it’s an open question if breaking down those defensive walls (and infuriating its persnickety users) is a good idea. Concerns over privacy are the #1 cited concern about Facebook, and this move seems to be ignoring that issue entirely.
I wonder if Facebook is taking one step too far away from what made it work, and if this will create an opening for another social network to take its place, as Myspace supplanted Friendster and Facebook supplanted Myspace.
Having discussed our modern day clans, now comes the question: how can libraries and information centers use these social network tools to provide better service? We’ve seen how ever expanding groups of people are creating online identities and circles of friends, and the smarter corporations and politicians have been quick to take advantage. Is facebook just one more place to advertise, or can it provide more interactive uses? The notion is that our users are already on facebook — we just need to reach out towards them.
A cursory glance at some local efforts don’t particularly inspire. The San Francisco Public Library has a facebook page, but it essentially falls in the “free advertising” category. It gets a few posts on its wall — mostly little feel-good comments or reminisces — and it provides updates about library openings and other press release material. However, there is no way to directly access a librarian or view the catalog. It certainly serves to create a facebook presence for the SFPL, but little more. It has many fans, but speaking as one of them, I’ve never received any event invitations or messages as a result of my “fandom”.
I was a little more impressed with an example I found via the group Libraries Using Facebook Pages. It’s for the Tompkins-McCaw Library for Health Services at VCU, hardly a site I’d naturally go looking for. But it had a more impressive array of offerings than the SFPL page: RSS feeds that continually supply library blogs, news updates, and more; an OCLC/WorldCat search widget; clearly listed hours and address; a photo feed; and an external app called “Bookshare” that allows them to highlight popular books. This last one is particularly original and feels similar to the bookstore-style collections often near the entrance of brick-and-mortar libraries. The app provides thumbnails of the book covers, as well, lending a nice visual appeal. It’s a simple but well designed webpage, all within facebook. But it only has a few dozen fans…for all that function, does anyone use it?
My internship supervisor last semester suggested that as a future librarian, it would behoove me to be on facebook — but not to reach library users. He said that when he and many of his colleagues first signed up, they thought it would be a tool for connecting to patrons. But in reality, he explained, users found the librarians other ways — in person, or via the library’s website. No, the real useful trait of facebook was professional networking, not just for jobs, but also for tips and answers and professional questions that come up in the life of a reference librarian.
While I admire the efforts of the Tompkins-McCaw Library, I think ultimately that he was right. Some users will find us through facebook. But the real advantage in facebook is making our own clans, making our connections. That will be the lasting effect — and it’s what facebook was built to do, and is best at.