The Teenybopper Network


Last week I attended Harvard’s internal workshop on technology in teaching and learning, and got a real education from a couple undergraduates. Sameer Lakha and Rachel Popkin demonstrated all the ways they use Facebook and all the ways it’s become a big deal on college campuses (particularly Harvard, where it started). 

I’ve not been a big user of social networking sites; I typically accept LinkedIn invitations from people I know, but don’t use LinkedIn to manage my own contacts. As a result, I was probably easier to impress with a good Facebook demo than some other people would be. But I was still really impressed.

As I watched Rachel and Sameer demo and talk about the site, it seemed to me that Facebook gets a few things right. First, it’s extremely social social software. It helps you keep track of what the friends in your network are doing by alerting you about their activities — status changes, new friends made, photos added, notes posted, etc. It also lets you interact very publicly with other members by posting a comment on their ‘wall,’ a universally readable message board that Sameer cleverly described as the online equivalent of the whiteboards that students mount on their dorm room doors. Of course, Facebook also lets you grow your network by adding friends. There are many ways to do this; the one I’ve found most productive so far is to page through the networks of my existing friends, looking for "Oh, yeah — I know that person too!" moments. So far, I’ve had quite a few of them.

Some readers probably consider what I’ve just described to be way too much sharing, and are forming an impression of Facebook as a privacy advocate’s darkest nightmare. A second thing that Facebook gets right, though, is privacy and disclosure control. The different elements of your Facebook presence, from elements of your profile to the visibility of your activities on the site, are under your control, and can be adjusted to suit your preferences. I’ve just started to understand the privacy controls, but they appear to be comprehensive and very fine-grained.

The privacy defaults tend toward openness and visibility (which seems right to me given the goals of the site), but also have some intelligent checks and balances. I can’t add you as a friend, for example, until you agree to the addition, and you also get to approve my version of how we know each other.
Facebook also contains both channels and platforms for interaction. Walls, photos, and notes (which are blog-like posts) are platforms, but the site also lets members send private messages to each other, thereby replicating the email channel. 

Finally, Facebook tries in some areas not to impose structure on users and their interactions, and instead to let structure emerge over time. Anyone can form, name, or join groups on the site, and these groups grow and die organically. Rachel and Sameer said that some group names are meaningful, but others are essentially bumper stickers. Users can also define their own status, and tell the world how they met each other. Finally, members can tag photos, and even people within photos. This latter feature makes it much easier for me to find all the photos of a friend, even if she didn’t upload them herself. As long as someone sometime tagged a photo with her name, I’ll be able to find it.

Sameer and Rachel demonstrated how they could add their Harvard courses to their profiles via a nice set of pulldown menus. Harvard’s CIO was more than a little surprised by this, as he didn’t think that the University had given the site permission to integrate its course catalog. The students replied that this was probably true, and that Facebook was probably just accessing publicly available data from the Registrar’s website. I can’t say whether this is in fact the case, but if so it’s an interesting example of a lightweight and opportunistic mashup.

Rachel said that not using Facebook was a "social liability" these days at Harvard, and Sameer said that he doesn’t really think whether he’s using the site for purely social purposes or more academic ones; he just "uses Facebook." This is in part because the site offers something close to one-stop shopping for many of the things students are interested in — uploading media, blogging, calendaring, communicating, catching up and checking in, sharing information, etc.

All of which got me thinking — isn’t this very close to what employees within a company also want to do? And if so, doesn’t Facebook provide a demonstrably powerful, popular, and easy-enough-to-use infrastructure for doing it? The site has been open to all (not just those with a .edu email address) since September of 2006. Some features still reveal its legacy as a networking site for college students, but it’s also now being adopted by plenty of folk who graduated long ago.

So what are the Enterprise 2.0 lessons from Facebook? I think one is the power of one-stop shopping, or an integrated collaboration environment. My current Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 interactions are scattered across a number of tools. While it’s not an overwhelming hassle to check them all throughout the day, it is a bit of work. I got the impression from Rachel and Sameer that a lot of undergrads are doing the bulk of their online interacting within Facebook. Shouldn’t we expect employees within a company to do the same, given the opportunity?

A more fundamental lesson concerns the incentives to participate in online communities. Some of the questions I get asked most often about E2.0 concern motivating and encouraging participation. Lots of companies have introduced technologies intended to facilitate collaboration, and most of them have been disappointed by the resulting levels of adoption and use. So collaborationware that spreads like wildfire is extraordinarily interesting, even before we delve into what it’s used for.

Why has Facebook taken off so quickly? In addition to all the features described above, I learned about one other important aspect of the site when I set up my profile and started using it last week: the desire to be popular and make friends, or at least appear to have a lot of them. I found myself racking my brain to think of who else I could ask to be my friend (after I was done with the MBA students I’d just finished teaching, who probably felt some obligation to accept the invitation). I spent a fair amount of time finding people and sending invitations, and then I spent a lot of time checking back in to see who’d accepted.

I’m still not quite sure why this was so important to me (and I hope the friend-collecting urge abates soon so I can do other things) but I’ll attest that technology-facilitated network building is a compelling activity. If companies want to bring their employees to the collaboration technologies they’ve installed, they could do a lot worse than giving them the opportunity to build their social networks like Facebook does.

Tell us what you think — is Facebook the shape of things to come for E2.0? Is network building a good way to bring people to collaboration technologies?

Also, here’s my profile. If we’ve worked together, if you’ve taught me or I you, if we met at a convention or other event, in short if we have any tenable connection at all, let’s be friends.