Last week I started a series about how I use social media, starting with Twitter. This week I'm going to talk about Facebook.
What is Facebook?
They tell me that Facebook started out as a way for Harvard University students to keep in touch with each other, and slowly expanded to include pretty much anyone who wants to keep in contact with other people. I personally didn't see the point, but when I went to an eLearning conference a few years ago, and "Web 2.0" and how it could be used in eLearning was all the buzz. So, reluctantly, I signed up.
I think I initially had the same experience I've heard from many others, which is that I found a few friends and quickly became overwhelmed when they started throwing sheep at me and wanting me to take a million quizzes and play games I didn't see the point of, probably because I wasn't willing to give the games access to my personal information and so I never played them. This meant that I withdrew from Facebook for a good long time, since it seemed that people were demanding more and more of my time and I wasn't able to see much benefit from it.
The Power of Reunion
Enter my high school reunion. I've heard about reunions where no one had a good time and people all went away remembering why they never talk, but my most recent reunion was great. It reframed my entire high school experience for me, and I found hidden depths in my erstwhile classmates. So, I dug out my dusty Facebook login and reconnected with them. But I made a promise to myself–I was not going to respond to any requests for quizzes, karma, games, nothing.
My experience this time was quite different. First, I wasn't wasting energy on all these requests to do things I didn't care about. The "Ignore" button became my friend, and I even found a "Hide" button where I could hide updates coming from quizzes, Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc.
The second thing was more subtle. As my circle of friends increased, I began to feel a part of communities I'd lost touch with–my high school classmates, obviously, my college classmates, and my eLearning friends. Suddenly I was getting tiny snippets from the lives of people I have known well in the past began to take the role of chance meetings in the supermarket, waving at each other in traffic, etc. I know many people don't find these contacts fascinating, but I personally love hearing that my childhood friend's son just turned ten, learning that the guy I always thought of as being a dumb jock is actually smart and thoughtful, or that the colleague I'd had beers with after hours at a conference is working for a company that might have an upcoming opening for someone with my skills.
But what does it do for me professionally?
Um...well. Honestly, I don't use Facebook professionally every day the way I do Twitter. Sure, I get a few pieces of professionally relevant information from links that my friends post each week. But by and large most of the professional contacts I keep up with on Facebook know me well enough that if they need to contact me directly, they have much better ways to do it than to go through Facebook.
I think the explanation for this is simple: Facebook enforces a two-way relationship. This means that I can only connect directly with people who also want to have a direct connection with me, and vice versa. This means that the default for Facebook is that I already have some kind of established relationship with nearly every person I'm friends with. So Facebook works well to cement connections I already have, but does not work to establish connections I want to have. This makes Facebook more akin to a local user group meeting and Twitter more like going off to a national conference.
There's value in deepening your connection to the same old faces, but somehow it feels more immediately valuable to add a lot of new contacts that you didn't know at all before.
The Opportunity of Facebook
The more I think about Facebook, the more I think that the opportunity in it lies in all of the parts I ruthlessly turn off. Clearly, millions of users are choosing not to ignore or hide the ubiquitous games and applications on Facebook. More and more companies are going to have a business model where they need Flash developers, AJAX developers, php developers, etc. And I think there's a certain amount of scope for individual developers to get their slice of the pie. In fact, I would not be at all surprised to find out that it's somewhat easier and potentially more lucrative to develop a Facebook application than developing iPhone/iPad application, then hoping it makes it past the gatekeepers at iTunes.
I keep telling myself that for once, I won't hide my friends' feeds to one of those games, and I'll try playing myself–out of developer's interest, of course. Maybe this week will be the week.