Sunday, November 25, 2007

Facebook - what, why, how?

Yes, I know it's been awhile since my last blog post - but rest assured, I haven't forgotten about my blog, it's just that lately I've been dedicating more time to other social channels, especially Twitter and Facebook, and of course also my Second Life. I really believe that you have to get immersed in any new technology in order to really understand it and be able to figure out why it works for so many people.

I already wrote about what I believe to be the magic behind Twitter, and today I'd like to share with you some of my thoughts on Facebook. I decided to choose this subject not only because I find Facebook quite fascinating, but also because there are a lot of people out there wondering what FB is all about and what it should/can be used for. In fact, FB might seem pretty straightforward, but it can take some time to figure it out. And that is why I've decided to share my personal experience with FB.

Ok, let's just start with the basics. As you probably know, FB is a very popular social networking site, which enables you to create your profile and connect with friends. In addition to this, it has its own developer platform, which developers can use to build different applications that enable users to do more or less useful activities. Yes, these apps only work in the closed environment of FB, making the site almost some kind of web operating system that doesn't want to talk to the rest of the web on its own, but requires developers to learn its language (called FBML) to bring the magic of the web and social interactions to it. Not surprisingly, many people criticize FB for being a walled garden, and Google is now trying hard to out open social networks with OpenSocial; but for an average Joe all this is not very relevant. If you've got most of your friends on FB and a lot of fun things to do, you don't really care how it's done, so I'll discuss the OpenSocial vs FB platform (or the new FB advertising options) some other time. Today, I'd just like to focus on the user perspective about various uses of FB apps, which in my opinion are the magic ingredient that make FB so appealing to an increasing number of users (some might add: and such a time waster ;) ).

I think we can divide FB apps, and consequently FB's value for the users, in three main categories:
  • Self-promotion and branding: At its core, FB is a place where you can build your own profile. When we build an online profile, we create our online persona, which will be seen by our friends or even the entire world. We might not realize that, but when we fill in various profile fields or choose our profile picture, we decide how we want to be presented to the world. You might want to emphasize your professional side or your fun side; but in both cases we make a choice in how we "brand" ourselves to our public (which we can choose by limiting our profile only to contacts for example). And there are many FB functions and apps that can help us build our persona (or even our personal brand), for example: various default profile options (picture, interests, work & education info, favorite things,...), joining groups (the FB groups function is awful, but I find it useful to publicly express my interest in certain topics), labeling yourself as a fan of something (made possible by the new product pages), your choice and variety of friends, the choice of profile layout (choosing which info to make public, having your music playlist, favorite quotes or the result of a personality test displayed, ...), your FB statuses, the items that appear in our mini-feed etc.. Some people even prefer having multiple profiles for different personas (for example, a different account for their Second Life avatar). Building our FB persona can be quite a task, and a lot of people choose to use just this aspect of FB. They register, fill in the info and connect with friends, and use FB just to say "I'm online too - if you want to connect to me use my e-mail/phone number".
  • Social play: The next category of FB apps enables us to have fun and keep in touch with out friends. We all have busy lives, a lot of our friends live in different cities or even parts of the world, and it's often not easy to find the time or way to hang out together. And here is where FB can help: it enables us to keep in touch with friend through different social (often playful) activities. Even if you're extremely busy, you can always find a minute or two to poke your friends, throw a sheep at them, turn them into a zombie or send them a virtual pet, flower or image. All these apps help us say "I'm thinking about you" in different ways. It might look silly, but it feels nice to receive virtual cakes when you set your status to ill. We often like to say "It's the thought that counts", and I think the social play apps in FB are a great proof of that. Also, the FB news feed, which displays various news about our friends, can help us feel closer to each other as it's constantly reminding of people, telling us what they are doing and providing an easy way to interact with them ("Click here to hug your friend too"). Sure, the feed items are a great way for developers to promote their app, but it does have some positive side effects I've just mentioned.
  • (Social) toolbox: The last category of apps is represented by a set of utilities that can help you save time, provide useful information and even be more organized. These apps can make FB a more "serious" tool. They enable us things like checking our e-mail, collaborating on documents with friends, getting info about weather, keeping track of what time it is for our friends that live in different time zones (my latest favorite app!), displaying latest blog entries from your friends and yourself and much more. These apps are the main reason why people are considering using FB as a business tool or even an e-learning tool. It's comfortable to be able to do so many different things (from play to work) on one single site, and if we want so, we can even make our "serious" activities social by choosing to display info from utility apps on our profile, and thus provide some valuable info to our contacts (I like to use FB Posted Items for this purpose).
These categories can of course often be overlapping - for example, social play apps or social toolbox apps can be used as a branding tool, and often the line between social play and social toolbox can be a fine one. An important point to remember here is that you don't need to use every aspect of Facebook; use what makes sense to you. It's fine if you just want to create a basic profile, and it' fine if you just want to use FB as a social toolbox and ignore the play aspects.

I'd like to conclude this post with some basic Facebook tips that I hope can help you in the process of getting to know FB and finding the added value of this tool for you:
  • Play with FB, but make sure you've got friends to play with. Try out different apps, explore, and be curious, but try not to annoy your friends while doing that. You don't have to send out invites to ALL of your friends for EVERY app you add (there's always a Skip button!). Show your friends you care and know them by sending them invitations for apps that you are pretty sure will be interesting for them.
  • Take some time to adjust your privacy settings. Decide which info/activities can be public, for friends or entirely private. You can also decide whether you want your name to appear in search or not. In the future we'll have the abilities to group friends and have different profiles for close friends, professional contacts, family etc.; but until we don't, try to figure out the best way to present yourself to all the people on your contacts list. You might want consider using the limited profile contacts you don't know well. You can find all these settings under the Privacy link in the upper right corner.
  • Remember that you don't need to have every app you use on your profile. You can access apps from the left-hand menu or the application list. Removing an app box from your profile only will not delete the app, and you will still be able to receive gifts, bite chumps and do all the other *fun* activities. Your friends can often see your app info (for example: Linkeness score) from the app itself, so there's really no need to keep everything on your profile. I know it's not easy, but try not to overload your profile page. When I choose what I want on my profile or not, I like to think about what info I can provide to a new friend that want to get to know me better, and what info I can provide to friends that I haven't spoken in a while. So, to put it simply, take care of your persona, and remember that you can choose the visibility for each profile element. Some info are for friends only while you might want to have some available public.
But of course, this post is based entirely of my Facebook experience in the past few months, and I'm sure we all have our own story to tell. So I'm really interested in hearing your Facebook story: how and why are you using FB, and what is in your opinion the added value of FB over other social networks? Also, what do you think are the best tips you could give to people just starting with FB or people still trying to figure out what the fuss is about?

Note: This is just an archive post. The blog has moved to a new home at, where you will also find a copy of the entire blog.