Saturday, April 18, 2009

Libraries might do better in Twitter, Friendfeed then in Facebook?

As of 2009, the 3 hottest darlings of social media right now are Facebook, Twitter and Friendfeed (in order of size).

My tenative thesis is that of the three, Facebook is probably the hardest for libraries to use as a tool for engaging users compared to Twitter or Friendfeed.

First some background.

In 2008 the social media press were comparing Twitter to Friendfeed, musing along the lines on whether Twitter or Friendfeed would go mainstream first.

By 2009, it was clear Twitter was way ahead and this was followed by a reaction claiming that Twitter isn't really a competitor to Friendfeed, rather Facebook was.

Given that Facebook has being stealing features liberally from Friendfeed, and Friendfeed has being inching their way towards a Facebook like interface in their beta by going "people centric", I can see why people might feel so.

Still there is one essential feature where Friendfeed is different from Facebook (and similar to Twitter).

By default Friendfeed (and Twitter) is open. You can choose to protect your updates or feeds so it is private/invitation only, but most people choose not to. In contrast, Facebook is by default private, to interact with someone you first need to send a request or to "friend" him.

I personally find it somewhat paradoxical, that Friendfeed being a lifestreaming application, potentially exposes more of your private life than Facebook, and yet most people have Friendfeed accounts that are public, but have closed Facebook accounts.

I suspect this has to do with the terminology, you "subscribe" (a more neutral term with no connotations of a social relationship) to a Friendfeed account, but you "Add a friend" in Facebook.

Richard Akerman and many others have also noted that Friendfeed (at least prior to the beta) was designed not to be people-centric, it was more about interacting with the information and not with people. If most users view Friendfeed that way, they might feel like threatened about pushing all their stream public, because (they assume) that everyone is just looking at the information and not at people per se.

What does this mean for libraries trying to reach out to users?

One of the problems Libraries have being faced with using Facebook as an engagement tool is that students are reluctant to be "friends" with the library. While "friending" a library is not as bad as friending your professor or your Mom it still feels weird. This holds even if the library's facebook account is public, friending an organization just doesn't seem kosher.

On the other hand, Friendfeed due to it's inherent open nature, has a more passive, socially neutral, transaction free vibe. You could compare it to being near a water cooler, listening to strangers or public speakers talk.

A even better comparison would be to subscribing to a RSS feed from a blog you find interesting. You don't need to have any prior relationship with the blog writer, to subscribe. In fact, Friendfeed (and Twitter) does indeed provide RSS feeds for users to subscribe to in a RSS feed reader of their choice, so this comparison is in-deed apt.

Of course, if users choose not to get Friendfeed accounts or twitter accounts of their own, but just subscribe to the RSS feeds of Friendfeed and Twitter, libraries lose the two way communication capabilities inherent in such medium, but even that would be a plus being able to push information to users. Think of it as Blog+.

That is perhaps the inherent problem with Friendfeed (and perhaps Twitter). Unlike Facebook which is already mainstream, Friendfeed isn't and might not make it to mainstream.
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