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23 October 2011

Facebook is better than sex?

I've been thinking about






although not exactly in the terms this article, which gives my post a neat title and is worth a read anyway.

I've had a personal Facebook (FB) account for about three years, and I log into it most days.  A lot of the people with whom I am “friends” on FB are not “friends” exactly, but people I know fairly well, mostly through work. (Oddly enough, of my four closest friends, three barely use FB and one isn't there at all. Nor are my “children”, both of whom reckon FB is for losers.)

But I like it for two reasons. First, because it reveals bits of information about my work colleagues - it's helpful when communicating with them to know if you have similar interests, that they have been on holiday, or had a rubbish week; and you can, I hope, assume that anything your colleague is putting on FB is something they are happy for you to know about. The second is that FB allows me to keep in contact with old friends whom I have known for years but seldom have the chance to meet.

So far so good.

But there are downsides. What exactly is FB?  A global marketing database? It's presumably not that efficient as I've been lying to it for years.  Who is in charge?  Us, or them?  Despite this apparent egalitarian networky stuff, FB instigates sudden changes to the interface, like the new BBC News-style (Top story : I've been to the pub, says Albert Jones). FB seems to fiddle about mysteriously with account settings : is our data being stored away somewhere? If so, there must be a gynormous amount of it, so is it accurate? Or is it junked (how?)  Status updates from 3 years ago pop up on friends' pages, sometimes with embarrasing consequences.  I refuse to sign up to apps which want to access my and/or my friends' info, but maybe I'm just being paranoid. And isn't there something a bit, well, weird about some FB friendships? As a student said to me, “I just spent half an hour looking at the holiday photos of a girl I was at primary school with, and I'm not even interested in her, or where she went”.

On the professional front, in an attempt to generate a space for discussing ebook matters at Cambridge I set up this FB group a couple of years ago.  Together with my colleague Jayne Kelly I doggedly post information there about ebooks which I think will be of particular interest.  The fact that communication has been somewhat one-way deterred me from embarking on a second FB page for Selwyn Library.  Nor was I convinced that the students would like librarians "going down the pub" with them.  So we thought this through carefully.  Michael Wilson carried out an excellent piece of research on the use of social media by Cambridge libraries to see what others were up to, and with what results, and Katie Turner attended a course on Facebook for libraries to pick up tips on best practice.  Eventually, this summer, we took the plunge and set up Selwyn Library.


We were keen to create an online library community for students, alumni and staff, and we're delighted that so many of them are already following us.  Even if FB isn't the best place for interactivity, it is helping to place the library within the College's consciousness, and seems to be raising our profile; even the Master's cat paid us a visit last week!  I must acknowledge here the brilliant inspiration of my favourite library FB/Twitter account, Orkney Library, who have nailed the art of providing library info with personality and humour.

Following on from creating the Library FB page, I've been involved in writing a social media policy for the College.  Arguably it isn't necessary because much of what is in it is already covered by employment terms, law (eg copyright/defamation) and policies such as Dignity at Work; but it seemed it would be more likely that staff would use social media, and do so effectively, if they felt confident about its purpose and content, and about the distinctions between personal and professional identities.  In turn, this has made me think more about how institutions should be presented - by displaying a carefully constructed, joined-up online identity, or by allowing its staff to speak as individuals?  And how will this be controlled?

You will be aware of the role of FB in encouraging the Arab spring revolutions.  (Maybe you saw How Facebook Changed the World).  What is surprising is that the regimes which the Arab activists overthrew seem to have been oblivious to the dangers of allowing their population access to FB, and some have paid the price. It looks like is going to be difficult for any hierarchical system to retain power by controlling information in future.