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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Social Networking: A Beginner's Guide To Facebook

Online social networking services have been around for some time now, with MySpace, Bebo and Facebook leading the pack. One of these contenders, however, has just stepped the whole game up a level, effectively becoming a disruptive technology.

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Not so very long ago Facebook was one popular flavor of social networking service, differentiated by its user-base, design and specific features. Nevertheless, the differences between Facebook and MySpace or Bebo were less than monumental. All of that has since changed with the launch of the Facebook Platform.

Facebook Platform has opened up this already hugely popular online destination to third-party developers, and the results are nothing short of breathtaking. What you now have, in addition to a solid core of social networking features, is the ability to aggregate all of your favorite content and services from around the web, and monitor and control them from your Facebook profile.

Whether you are interested in instant messaging, Twitter, photo slide shows, music sharing or selling your wares via classified ads, there is no longer any need to visit a number of websites to do so. Facebook has it all.

In this beginners guide to Facebook, I take a look at:

  • The Facebook buzz currently circulating, and what it's all about
  • The core social networking features on which the new range of applications have been built and seamlessly integrated
  • Rich content aggregation and what it means for the end-user
  • Why people love Facebook
  • Why people hate Facebook
  • A handful of must-have Facebook applications to get you started

Overview - What's The Buzz All About?

Facebook is defined by its creators as:

''a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them. People use Facebook to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet.''

Long before the relatively recent introduction of the Facebook Platform that is getting everyone so excited, Facebook was a popular social networking service with a primary audience of teens and college-goers.

Like then similar services such as MySpace, the key focus was on befriending other users and sharing thoughts, photos, music and comments. Useful enough, and certainly enough to get the service millions of subscribers, but still nothing compared to the current amazing growth rate that Facebook is enjoying. Not only are the new sign-ups to the service going through the roof, but the demographic that it covers is expanding considerably, with a greater amount of twenty-somethings using Facebook that its initially teenage audience.

The sudden sharp interest is directly indexed to the opening up of the Facebook Platform, which allows developers from around the world to create their own unique Facebook applications. This essentially opens up the entire world of online content for easy aggregation into the existing social networking functionality, so that users can create a profile and personal network of friends whilst taking advantage of all of their favorite online tools and services.

Gone are the days when your Skype, Twitter, instant messaging, social networking and classified s hunting had to take place at a scattered range of online destinations. Facebook applications bring all of this and more to the one-stop-shop of your profile page.

This is indeed a disruptive technology that at once turns the social networking and content aggregation spaces upside down and its impact is bound to be felt in the worlds of web widgets, startpages and ofcourse SNS destinations like the now waning MySpace.

Here is an openness we are not used to seeing in such billion-dollar web enterprises, where more often that not the walled garden approach seems to prevail. However, I have a feeling that we will be seeing a lot of imitators sooner rather than later.



The Basics - Social Networking

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At base Facebook has a solid core of social networking features that make it not only easy to create your user profile, but also to interact with those other community members that you add as friends.

Layout and navigation are impressively clean and uncluttered, especially when compared to the horrible jumble that is MySpace. There are a number of ways to track down potential friends already on the network, whether via your email contacts list, workplace, schools and colleges or a generic search. When friendships are made - as simple as 'adding' another user from their profile - Facebook prompts you on how you know the person you have brought into your network.

The usual email and messaging features are all in evidence, as is photo-sharing and the ability to update both your 'current status' (what you're doing, or how you're feeling) right from the main page of your profile. Each profile also has a 'wall', a place that both the owner and visiting users can leave quickfire messages for one another.

Every time you update your status, add a new application to your profile or edit information this information is recorded and subsequently broadcast to your friends, who can easily keep track of your latest actions. While for some this will feel strangely intrusive at first, it can in fact be a valuable tool for finding out information and useful tips from those within your network.

Long featuring the ability to share blog posts, video, audio and links Facebook has everything that you would expect from a high-quality social networking application. But online social networking tools are a dime a dozen these days, and what really distinguishes Facebook from its nearest competitors is its disruptive ability to aggregate rich content from elsewhere on the web.



Rich Content Aggregation

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It is the opening up of the Facebook Platform to the general public (or at least that part of it comprised of third-party application developers) that has really made waves. For while Facebook has always enjoyed phenomenal success as a social networking service, it is only now that it has become a truly disruptive technology with the ability to aggregate all of your most important web-based content in a single location.

Facebook as it stands today gives you a single sign-in service whereby you can:

  • Network with friends and colleagues using internal email, private messaging and public discussions
  • Make status and presence updates using both in-house tools and popular third-party service like Twitter, which can be fully controlled from the Facebook console
  • Bring in live chat, voice messaging and one-click Skype calls
  • Import and share videos and create photo albums and slide shows to easily share your media
  • Quickly grab content that you like the look of from other people's profiles and add the same functionality to your own

Of course, this only touches the tip of the iceberg, but what is essential to note is that in opening its doors (and API to developers outside of its inner circle, Facebook has managed to expand its capabilities rapidly and effectively. The result has been a well-earned influx of even more users.



Why People Love Facebook

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So what exactly is it that has the blogosphere dizzy with admiration for the Facebook Platform and the impact it is having?

Well, the recurring themes are the bold move towards being open to third-party developers, and as a consequence, the rich range of content aggregation options now available to those who spend a fair amount of time using the latest web applications in one shape or form.



What the developers think

Jason Berberich of Berbs.US writes:

''While Facebook doesn't let users change the way pages look (one of its best features, in my opinion), it instead opens itself up to 3rd party developers with a really impressive API that's got great documentation. Existing applications can now be integrated right into the platform so they look and feel like they're part of the site, and entirely new apps and business ideas can (and will) be created to reach Facebook users.

I love how Zuckerberg is thinking long-term with Facebook. He could have easily sold the company and cashed out, or littered the site with tons of ads, but he didn't. Instead, he's building a platform that will make Facebook one of the most powerful (and money-making) sites for years to come. He's doing everything right, as best I can tell. Pure genius.''

Berberich's enthusiasm mirrors that of the hundreds of developers out there now presented with an opportunity to create killer apps for Facebook, or else port their existing web applications over to the service, extending their reach and, crucially, their market.

By presenting developers with well-put-together documentation and an open invitation to participate in the platform, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has won himself a considerable amount of kudos for taking this bold move and cracking open the industry, and perhaps rightly so.



What the tech industry insiders think

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch rolls with this idea and praises the shift towards an open, developer-friendly platform as the living antithesis of the walled-garden approach thought to be the biggest challenge facing waning competitor MySpace. Arrington notes that:

''The payoff is two way. Not only do developers get deep access to Facebook's twenty million users, Facebook also becomes a rich platform for third party applications.

Facebook's strategy is almost the polar opposite from MySpace. While MySpace frets over third party widgets, alternatively shutting them down or acquiring them, Facebook is now opening up its core functions to all outside developers.''

So while MySpace continues to block third-party tools and accessories to protect its own interests and advertising revenues, Facebook has succeeding in becoming the definitive social networking destination by giving users exactly what they want - the ability to choose from a vast range of alternatives rather than be locked into a single service.

Here is the ongoing trend that marks Web 2.0 as distinct to its top-down, one-way predecessor, and is very canny of the Facebook team to have come to this astute decision while others around them have been doing exactly the opposite.



What the users think

Of course it isn't just the developers with a smile on their face, and at the very core of any social network is its user-base. To my mind, this shift to a daring, open approach to third-party developers has been key to expanding Facebook to the next level.

Robert Scoble places Facebook within the context of the slew of aggregation and micropublishing services currently enjoying enormous popularity, and notes of Facebook that:

''I totally grok why Facebook is quickly becoming the most important social network and presence updater on the Web. If you get added to my Facebook Friends list (it's easy, just ask) you'll see that it aggregates a whole bunch of things onto one page.

My Kyte videos are there. My Twitter tweets are there. My shared items, er link blog, from Google Reader is there. And a lot more. Plus you can visit any one of my nearly 500 friends and see all their stuff.''

So, in addition to being able to aggregate the range of services that you use across the web in a single location, another of the great things that Facebook has to offer is the ability to follow your friends statuses, and latest additions to their own profiles through an ongoing feed. This proves an excellent way to learn about the latest hot applications by seeing what's being used by those within your social network.



Why People Hate Facebook

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While there is a strong consensus in favor of the new Facebook developments, the service is not without those who either out-and-out dislike it, or at least have some questions and doubts to raise about its claims and the hype that it is generating. The range of reasons to dislike Facebook are as diverse as the reasons to like it are similar.



Information Overkill

One feature of the Facebook profile that has its detractors is the "mini-feed" that displays each of your actions, and those of your friends, in a public timeline not unlike that of Twitter. The difference is that with Twitter updates, you decide what will be shared, whereas with the Facebook news feed, your every action is monitored and broadcast.

The author of one blog, ComPromise, writes that:

''I think it's creepy that acts that were once personal and not immediately open to the scrutiny of others are now blared on loudspeakers to everyone without distinction. Sure, none of this is information that didn't already exist, but the difference is accessibility. It's like the birthday feature: if your friends' birthdays didn't pop up on your home page, everyone would get a lot fewer birthday messages because fewer people would know.

Similarly, you can always check to see what groups your friend is in and, if you're interested enough, notice new additions or removals. However, the information is then only accessible to a few, devoted people. Now, people who don't even know you all that well will be informed about''

Similar comments have been made elsewhere as to the propensity of Facebook to somewhat stalk its users. On the bright side it should be noted that only those users you have added to your list of friends will be privy to information about which application you just installed, and so on, but for some this is invasive rather than useful.

For me, however, I have found this to be a very useful addition as I have managed to find great new applications simply by following what others in my network of friends have discovered. It all comes down to how much you are willing to share, and unfortunately while you can delete particular items in your timeline, you can't get rid of the feed itself from your profile, which some would prefer to do.



How Open Is Facebook?

Sam Sethi over at Vecosys doesn't so much hate Facebook so much as question how open Facebook really is to the developers it has invited in. In an analysis of the Facebook terms and services, Sethi manages to pull out some clauses that suggest that the openness of the platform has severe limitations. He concludes:

''Will Facebook impose a 'tollbooth' or tax on successful widgets? Sure looks like they want to. Will they be building their own competitive versions? Sure looks like they want to. Can they cut you off from the platform at any time? Sure looks like they can. Can they change the ground on which you operate? Sure looks like they can. Do you have a hard and fast relationship with this platform, making it safe to build a 20 million user widget based company on? I don't think so.

I would say that Facebook have looked at MySpace and learned a lesson : there are a lot of developers at the gates. They have built a platform that seems to open up their world in an exciting way. But they retain their fingers on the levers of power and they will exercise those levers as mercilessly as My Space when the time comes.''

And while the terms of service discussed in Sethi's article do not provide any hard evidence of nefarious plans on the part of the Facebook team, they do at least suggest that those looking to establish a business entirely founded on success via the Facebook platform should proceed with caution.



Facebook as unoriginal

One of the (ten) criticisms leveled at Facebook by Anne Zelenka in her article for Web Worker Daily is that it just doesn't do much of anything new. She writes that:

''It has messages that are email-like, a contact list, an events list, a Craigslist-style marketplace, Twitter-style updates, and blogging via its Notes application. I can see why they'd want to be a one-stop-shop for virtual interactions, but in each case, their implementation seems weak compared to my favored solution. I prefer a best-of-breed approach for my online communications tools.''

The danger according to this train-of-thought is that in trying to do all things within its own framework, Facebook may very well wind up doing none of them as effectively as the diverse range of tools and services already out there, with their tight focus on a particular task or goal.

There is something to be said for this criticism, although arguably Facebook doesn't attempt to replace your existing tools and services so much as make it easy for your to aggregate them and access your information from a single location.



Must-Have Facebook Apps

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The sheer amount of applications available for your Facebook profile can be daunting at first glance. Soon enough, though, you will have found a set of tools that suits your own needs. Whether you want to create photo slide-shows or post right to your Twitter account, there is an application to suit just about any need you'd care to consider.

To a large extent, then, the applications you choose to integrate into your personal Facebook will largely be a matter of taste. There are some tools, however, that really stand out in terms of their usefulness. I personally make use of:

  • SkypeMe - which displays your current Skype status with a prominent graphic, and allows your profile visitors to quickly
    place a Skype call to your account with a single click
  • Twitter - As a service I use every single day it's great that I can now send out 'tweets' directly from Facebook, display my current status right on my profile and even view my friends' timeline without ever having to leave Facebook. If you haven't checked out Twitter yet, you might want to take a look at my earlier beginners guide
  • Upcoming - Upcoming integrates the events you are currently watching or planning to attend, using the popular service of the same name. This is a great way to promote upcoming events of interest to a wider audience
  • Kyte TV - Kyte gives you a great way to incorporate a live media feed into you profile, letting you bring in video and an up-to-the-minute stream of images captured from your mobile phone via the Kyte.TV destination
  • Literally hundreds more that allow for monetization, media sharing, chat and messaging, video and alert setting

It's worth mentioning that even when you first sign up for a Facebook account you will find a bundled, default set of very useful applications. My personal favorite from this selection is the Posted Irems tool, via which you can ".''

What all of this amounts to is an impressive host of aggregated content from every corner of your online life, gathered around core social networking functionality.



Conclusions

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However you feel about Facebook there is no denying that it has managed to make a huge impact. This is in no small way down to opening up of the platform to external developers - in many ways an industry first.

As a consequence Facebook has managed to go from being a well-put-together online social networking tool to becoming a socially powered content aggregation hub. By allowing you to bring together the vast majority of your favorite tools and services from around the web, and aggregate them in a single easy-to-navigate destination, Facebook has achieved something totally new.

Here you can now combine the networking features of SNS websites, the photo and video sharing capabilities of sites from Flickr to YouTube, the presence broadcasting features of tools like Twitter and Jaiku, but more importantly than any of this - the ability to pool all of your most-used online resources in a single, accessible space.

Whether you are looking to create yourself a simple way to exchange ideas with like-minds, colleagues or friends, or a great way of promoting yourself or your other online content, Facebook is well worth checking out. I would go as far to say that if you only sign up for one social network on the web, Facebook should definitely be high on your list.



Additional Resources

If you would like to learn more about Facebook you might want to take a look at the following links:




Originally written by Michael Pick for Master New Media and originally published as: "Online Social Networking Turns Disruptive Technology: A Beginner's Guide To Facebook

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Readers' Comments    
2009-08-23 14:41:16

Evhen

Nice in-depth guide! Covers a lot of ground.



2009-03-03 12:24:22

Facebook How To Guide

Wonderful Facebook How To Guide! I thought all the content was really thorough and useful. I wish you had gone a little bit more in depth on the privacy and security parts. But overall, great Facebook How To Guide!



2007-07-17 18:08:38

Dave

Check out http://www.youpod.com. It has bookmarking, groups, chat and everything else you'd expect from a social networking site. Join The Revolution !!!



2007-07-03 11:37:55

net socializing

Awesome info. I'm just getting into facebook and this helps.



2007-07-02 12:07:47

JonJonson

A prevailing problem of the new App's is how cluttered facebook is becoming.

Another thing is the app's are nicely integrated, however it is not integrated as well as if facebook made the app themselves.

Apps are not cross compatible.

People will start to leave and go to a better site is one comes around.(give it a year or 2)



2007-06-26 12:52:58

Rodney Rumford

Great article and primer for facebook. We have been publishing ratings and reviews of facebook applications since the facebook platform launched. We have reviewed twitter, jaiku, etc.

We are providing a way for users to decide which useful applications to use with our in depth rating and review system at http://www.facereviews.com

Check it out.

Rodney Rumford
Publisher: Facereviews.com



 
posted by Michael Pick on Tuesday, June 26 2007, updated on Friday, July 23 2010


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