Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I have another round of friends joining Facebook and one asked me, if there's a primer of sorts that explains what productive uses Facebook actually has? Here's my response.

No, because there are no productive uses of Facebook. Here's the deal, as best as I can figure.

You get two kinds of email, from people you know, and from people you don't know. Which is more useful? If you go to a website that a lot of people go to, you behave differently than if you knew them all and you get different kinds of information from it. Facebook is somewhere in between.

Facebook's unique feature is that it knows about how its users related to each other. They call it the "social network", to everyone else it's "friends". Facebook's best app is their photo sharing. Not only can you post photos, you can also tag the photos with the people's names and the system tracks it. So if I post a photo of Alice, Bob could notice it and add the annotation to say Alice is in it. But then the system can show "photos of Alice" to anyone who's interested in them, regardless of who posted them. So when you go to Alice's profile on facebook you see both, "photos posted by Alice" and "photos of Alice".

But the cool thing is that you can control the security of who sees your photos. You can say, don't show these photos to everyone, just to my friends. And while a lot of people don't use it, when you connect to friends, you can give friend details of how you know them (through another friend, from work, from school, etc.) I'm not sure you can actually do this but everything is in place to say "only show my photos to my college friends, not my work friends". That's valuable.

When facebook opened up the platform allowing others to write applications, people were excited that there would be more like the photos app. But it turns out, the developers wrote apps that turned your friends into zombies and set up a "lil green patch" and various "poke your friend" apps that did nothing useful except pyramid schemes to give your friends an excuse to install the app and give more ad views for the author. Hey, turn your friends into a zombie and you'll be a more powerful zombie. Some are fun, like the movie one that has quizes and lets you rate movies and then compare your scores and favorites to your friends. Fun, but not quite useful.

Facebook's other cool feature is the newsfeed. When your friends make changes it gets published to all their friends. You see these on the main page in the newsfeed. There were lots of privacy concerns at first but it's what makes facebook usable. I know when you've posted new photos or changed your status to married or single, or someone posted a (public) message on your wall, etc. You post info once, and it goes to all your friends. I read a feed of all my friends stuff and can know what's going on about people I care about without constant contact or direct emails. The unexpected part is I now know some background info so when I do see you I have stuff to ask about that's more specific than "what's new?". I have my twitter posts set my facebook statuses. I saw a friend I hadn't seen in a few months and he asked, oh, so why were you in NJ a few weeks ago?

Again the privacy controls can set who sees your feed. The least understood and most underused feature of facebook is that the security settings are the best I've ever seen in any application because it knows who you know and in what relationship (work, college, etc.) Other system let you set up security groups, but this lets you set them up and use the relationship for more than security.

There are other things. Anyone can easily create a group that's open to anyone or just to people you invite. The group gets a page and shared space for files, photos, etc. It gets it's own wall to post messages on. I understand that students use it for class projects to share info. Look at how hard it is in a corporate environment to set up a mailing list for a small team or a shared file store or a small wiki site. You send a request to IT and it takes weeks if they can do it at all. In Facebook you can set one up in as much time as sending the request to IT would take. The problem is that groups don't update your feeds, so you have to go to the group page to see changes. This is an issue if you're in a lot of groups.

Here's where the fact that it was written by 22 year olds come in. It started out as the facebook of harvard, then they expanded to other schools so they said, based on your email address (, yale,edu) we'll put you in a "network". You can see more things about people (who aren't your friends) in your own network than in another network. Then they expanded to more schools and then to non-schools and they couldn't verify membership easily. If your email address is they can't prove you work for CitiCorp. So they created groups so you could put yourself in the groups you want. But then groups don't update the feed, so they created Pages. You can become a fan of pages (there are pages for Obama, The Big Bang Theory, etc.) When pages you're a fan of get updated you don't see it in your feed but you do see a notification. I think that these three things, network, groups and pages all need to be combined into one more useful thing. Now it's too confusing of how I should see, say New York Giants stuff. Do I install a Giants app on my profile, join a group, become a fan of a page? Why should I do all three?

Here's the last bit. I think the reason college students loved it was that you could send direct message to your friends with it. It's not just wall posts that everyone can see, you can send private (email-like) messages. And you can connect it to your cell phone so you text message to it and get text messages from it. College students connect with facebook via their phones and use it as their email system. I first started playing with facebook because a friend's 13 year-old thought email was how old people communicated. She used myspace, as did all her friends. then I found out they used myspace private messages so it was just their email system instead of gmail or yahoo or a work system. College students also just want to have really high friends counts, and will post any picture of them for anyone to see, and have no real work they need to get done. So facebook is perfect for them.

So as far as I can tell, Facebook still has a lot of potential it's squandered. Now other sites are copying the social aspects. Netflix has friends so I can send recommendations to my friends and see their queue, ratings, etc. It's nice. LinkedIn won the workplace social network and is now adding application support so hopefully they will have useful workplace features, though I don't know what they'll be.

This is what I've figured out from using Facebook for a couple of years. If you have more ideas I'd love to hear them.


Natalie & Jessica's Dad said...

Interesting stuff, thanks. Have I asked you yet if your finances are holding up well enough to keep not working? Because, we need you to continue blogging the stuff no one else has time to read.

You've now convinced me that I have only joined FB because "everyone else has" and I don't necessarily want to miss out.

I am NOT, however, at all interested in MySpace.

Howard said...

The market isn't pretty but I'm not jumping out a window just yet.

Well, Facebook's also a way to monitor your children once they get on it. MySpace seems to be more for high school students and bands. Facebook is for college students. About a year ago I heard an NPR report on how the Army had banned MySpace but not Facebook, the speculation on the distinction was that officers went to college and weren't going to give up their social network.

Shea said...

> I have my twitter posts set my facebook statuses

How? I want my facebook network to read my drunken haikus too (-:

Howard said...

There's a facebook app called Twitter or something like it that can get your tweets and set your status.

Natalie & Jessica's Dad said...

Last night I tried adding the blogger app in FB, thinking that perhaps as I wrote blog posts they would appear in my FB status or something like that. Unfortunately the app is built can write a post within FB and have it automagically appear on your blogger site. That's pretty useless.

Howard said...

I used to have one that did that. Try Blog RSS Feed Reader.