What to do about Facebook?

Ah, Facebook.

On the one hand:

…this is the single most dynamic, engaged and engaging platform for user generated content that there has ever been. 500 million people, converging on a single web application. Wait, read that again – 500 MILLION people. That’s a noticeable chunk of the entire global population.

That’s a totally, utterly and completely insane amount of user penetration. And when you use it (I don’t, much, but I watch my wife and her friends and I dip in to see what is happening every so often) – it’s obvious why. Facebook is slick, it’s user-focused and it’s all about the connections. Critical mass + friends + photos? Of course it works.

On the other hand:

…Facebook is regularly cited – actually, cited is way too gentle a word – screamed about – for being EVIL. Reasons vary, but they tend to focus on what is seen as a hugely lax approach to privacy. Actually, it’s layer upon layer of laxness – from totally baffling privacy controls to requiring a PhD to delete your account to the latest “facetracking by default” functionality. It’s a general “don’t give a ****” thing, it appears.

When it isn’t privacy, it’s concerns about “domination of the web” (particularly now things such as the Like Button are out in the wild) or how closed their so-called “Open Graph” is in reality, or the possibility that Zuckerberg did something wrong once or – well, go read “10 reasons to delete your Facebook account” for some more.

And here’s the tension, beautifully summed up by Jason Scott in a stunningly entertaining rant about Facebook. Cover your body organs if you’re of a sensitive disposition:

People aren’t just eating Facebook’s Shit Sherbet of overnight upgrades, of lack of guarantees and standards, of enveloping tendrils of web standard breaking. They are shoveling it down. They’re grabbing two crazy handfuls of Facebook every minute of every day when they’re not forced to walk down a hallway or look up from their phones or ipads or laptops or consoles. They’re grabbing buckets of Facebook and finding ways to shove it down with one hand while pawing around for a second bucket.  People have bought the fuck in.

So what to make of this? For someone like me – a generalist who straddles two very different groups of people – the tension is very often felt. I have geeks in one ear talking about open standards, pushing for privacy controls and hoping upon hope that the Semantic Web will get here one day. In the other ear I hear people who couldn’t give a monkeys about open standards, probably have “password” as their password, and seem remarkably relaxed about posting pictures of themselves hunched over a bucket bong. With these people there’s no denying the pleasure, the engagement, the rich content and the opportunities that Facebook offers.

On thing seems sure: rant as much as you like, but there’s no escaping. Facebook – in fact, big companies of all sizes – will dominate the internet landscape for a long time to come, and they’ll always find success.  There’s a reason why there is no alternative to Twitter, no alternative to Google and no alternative to Facebook: these are the places where everyone goes. It’s horrible, and uncomfortable, and we all wish people weren’t so terribly dumb, but the fact of the matter is – people choose social, and they do it at the expense of – well, lots of things: privacy, openness, safety. The utility of these tools is easy to underestimate in the general scheme of things, especially if you’re a geek – but utility, ease, sociability are the non-geek world’s open standards, the defining shape of their lives.

This seems to be the sting in the tail of large-scale social web activity. In order for it to be compelling, it requires a large social graph. In order for a large social graph to work, you normally need a big company or concern behind the scenes. Where there’s a big company, there’s money. Where there’s money, ethics almost always start being eroded. Bang.

I don’t think anyone should be under any illusions that everyone is going to delete their Facebook account (when they can work out how) just yet. Learning, awareness, going into this with eyes (yours, or your institutions’) seems to be the only possible answer to the question in the title. A moderate, not polarised approach.

Clearly I’m getting old.

The diminishing returns of size

I gave a workshop last week to a bunch of museums in the North East entitled “Bootstrapping the Web”. Well, actually, it started off as that but following a questionnaire asking what they’d like to learn, the focus changed a bit to “How to do social media well”. I’m hoping the attendees learnt something – I certainly did, which is always great when you’re delivering stuff like this.

One of the things that is readily apparent, both from this workshop and from many of the conversations I have and see, is that many institutions – museums, galleries, businesses – have climbed over the first hurdle when it comes to social media. Many of them – more than you would expect – now have a social media presence. Usually this is a Facebook page or a Twitter account, sometimes it is a collection of Flickr pictures, sometimes a blog.

On first glance, these networks are of value because of their enormous size. Facebook currently claims 500 million active users (that’s, what, about a 14th of the world’s population). Twitter has 200 million or so (or is it a mere 15 million? who knows).

At that kind of scale, though, these networks are just sub-silos of the web. Just “having a presence” on Facebook or Twitter means as little as “having a web page”. We all learnt a long time ago that creating a web page was merely the tiniest tip of the biggest iceberg and that all the hard work comes after that: maintaining, driving traffic, linking, content, content, content. These networks differ because of the ease with which they allow network effects to bloom, and they have power when there is a personal nature to the interaction. The size itself isn’t by any means a guarantee of success, and nor is the hype.

This is a big lesson that many institutions – and people, for that matter – are only just  beginning to learn. Social media and social networks aren’t a golden bullet. The ease with which you can set up a presence belies the hard and clever work that is required to maintain this presence.

The thing we talked about a lot in the workshop last week was about how you put social media into a strategic framework: one which asks “should I be doing this at all?” as regularly as asking “how should I be doing this?”. I’ve always argued that we needed a JFDI beginning in order to kick start a more strategic conversation, but the reason for doing it should be made very clear right at the beginning. I (shameless plug) talk a lot about this in my book.

Gartner casts a light on what is likely to happen in the near future: many institutions will fall down the trough of disillusionment as they realise that social media isn’t the save-all that they thought it might have been, and we’ll see interest wane as Facebook pages remain unfriended, Flickr pictures aren’t looked at, and blog posts aren’t visited. The people who have thought about things a bit harder and a bit more strategically – those who are in it for the long game – will weather this storm and realise that the ROI on social media comes later on, and only with more strategic thinking.

Many me

I first joined Twitter in 2007. In fact, if www.whendidyoujointwitter.com is correct, I joined on 20th February 2007.

My first account was @dmje. I tweeted in that way that everyone seems to first tweet – a sporadic few “just what the hell is this Twitter thing all about?” followed by a long gap, followed by a re-emergence as more people I knew found themselves on it. I also, of course, blogged (“All Noise, No Signal“) and have been slowly eating my words (some of them, not all) ever since.

For a long time, my @dmje account worked well. But after a while, I started to become very aware that the person that I am (opinionated, personal, direct, a little bit sweary..) was different from the person I either *should* be or was somehow expected to be (professional, supportive, focused).

At that point in time – in fact, prompted by a slightly sweaty moment in which I tweeted a few bits and bobs which I probably shouldn’t have from a professional perspective – I decided to make @dmje a private account and create a new public persona, @m1ke_ellis. Again, according to whendidyoujointwitter, this happened on 22nd May 2009.

I went through a fairly painful process of moving across *some* contacts to my m1ke_ellis account but leaving others at @dmje. My criteria? Very, very loose, but broadly based around: “If we’ve met and drunk a beer together then @dmje, otherwise @m1ke_ellis…”. There are exceptions to this rule, though. Obviously 🙂

I’m now maybe 5 months down the line, and I’m still not entirely happy with the outcome; although each time I think about the possible alternatives I always come back to what I’ve done as being the best way, albeit far from perfect.

Here’s the thinking:

The good:

  • I can continue to rant, unabridged and privately (except, obviously, to a group of trusted and known personal friends) using my @dmje account. I use this account far more than my public one (sadly, nearly 10,000 tweets…)
  • I follow about 120 people, I have about 110 people who I’ve allowed to follow me. These people are real to me. In true Dunbar style, I see my Twitter stream for @dmje and feel a personal connection with each and every person on that list.
  • …I can therefore cope with the quantity and noise
  • Tweets to and from the @dmje account are much more conversational, much less “broadcast”
  • I can retain a “professional” persona at @m1ke_ellis, tweeting about work and technology related stuff. This is particularly useful at conferences and so on
  • Having a public account of some description is useful when it comes to feeding a stream to blogs, profile, and so on

The bad:

  • By far and away the single worst thing about this approach is this: I’m not two people, and although this can sometimes get ugly (yes, I ranted about Creative Spaces; no, I wasn’t particularly “professional”, but I feel passionate about some things..)
  • From a marketeers perspective (and I don’t subscribe to this viewpoint at all, btw), I’ve done A Bad Thing by splitting my Twitter accounts. While I’ve watched some people moving up to thousands of followers, I’ve split my juice (urg!) across 2 accounts. Actually, more – I also use @bathcamp and @eduserv for other specific purposes. If I was after followers (I’m not), I should probably have stuck with a single “me” account.
  • Maintaing two or more accounts is challenging, logistically. Although Tweetdeck (my preferred desktop client) and EchoFon (mobile) both support multiple accounts now, it is very easy to tweet the wrong thing to the wrong account. More to the point, it is hard to maintain momentum with an account if your attention isn’t on it all the time

There is a deeper point to all this: Embracing social media requires a fairly complex understanding of personality and tone of voice. I might be a more professional me over at @m1ke_ellis, but how is that me different to the me at @dmje? You’re not likely to hear about my kids, my wife, my life, my hangovers, the gig I just went to, the #bus14 journey I nearly got killed on.

But there again, if you’re listening to the professional me then you probably don’t want to hear that anyway, right? Or do you? How real is the me who just talks about work? Not very, in one sense, because my family and that other stuff is (obviously) waaaay more important than my working life. And it’s not like I can effectively split my interests in that way. I live and breathe web stuff – this is far from being a day job for me.

Actually, I think the most successful social media people and companies manage to balance this rather better than I have. Take @andypowe11 for example. He’s public and not only tweets about metadata and work stuff but also rants on occasion, too. He’s got better self control than me (he’s as rude, but swears less..), but still.

I don’t like Twitter as broadcast mechanism, and I think naturally once you pass a level of followers/followees that is what it becomes, unless you’re on top of it all of the time. Personally I dislike it when I “@” someone and they don’t reply; clearly someone with thousands of followers is unlikely to respond all of the time. Twitter then moves from being a conversation to being something different, a something which I feel doesn’t carry the personality which social media perhaps should.