Thursday, October 11, 2007

Facebook musings

One of the things which really interests me in education is what works and what doesn't work in terms of participation, particularly in an online context. As such, watching the things on Facebook which take off vs. the things which don't is fascinating. It seems that one of the things people like is 'fun' stuff which isn't particularly technically challenging but which allows them to break out of their adult selves for a little while. Things which don't require much commitment of the self are also used a lot - browsing profiles or looking at photos:

Graphic of how Facebook users spend their time


Serious discussions tend to be limited although people do like to join groups - the act of joining and being seen to be a member seemingly more important than what is derived through active contribution. Those which appear with a funny statement for a title get joined... then forgotten. Those which relate to a current course of study tend to be more actively used. Those which relate to a particular programme of study (i.e. a specific degree) aren't used as much because the day-to-day work goes on elsewhere. General support, i.e. 'this is the type of person I am' is popular even if the engagement isn't particularly deep - the group I set up called 'OU Mums' has had over 200 members join in its first couple of months and the most common type of wall posting is 'it's so good to find other people like me'. Again, the act of making contact is what's important. Knowing the safety net is there should you want it. Viral distribution of groups is also a key means of publicity. Get the 'right' people to join who have anything other than a very small network of contacts, and the marketing begins.

Facebook's applications also encourage a type of viral distribution by advertising themselves amongst groups of friends, but this doesn't necessarily mean that their use will be anything more than for curiosity's sake. Engagement is definitely of the short and sweet variety. Take for example the 'My Questions' application. It's been interesting to see how that's been used amongst my own group of friends - not least since it requires some level of thoughtful participation by people who engage with it. A question with humour seems to work better than something 'worthy'. A question which isn't too intrusive or personally revealing is also good. Things which don't seem to work so well are banal 'standard' questions offered up by the application or those which are a little too detailed to cope with the superficial level of use of the typical Facebook encounter. Too inane, too geeky, too dull - also all a no -no. I guess a lot of this is applicable to icebreaker activities whether online or face-to-face. Knowing what works and what doesn't is a lot like the questions on Facebook. Let people show their best side but don't make it threatening.

Long ramble about Facebook - phewie! It's been an interesting few months using it and it's useful to stop every so often and think about what is or isn't useful and / or applicable to elearning. I love the fact that people are willing to give up their own time without being prompted. Learn a new system. Input loads of different details. Get to grips with different applications. Find their own way of using it. Yes, maybe it isn't used in a desperately serious way (can't really see that enjoying playing Scrabble with your Facebook friends counts as serious, nor is the virtual 'throwing a sheep' massively grown up!)... but it is used. Boy oh boy is it used! It puts to shame so many of the rather dull and worthy elearning applications out there, and the level of voluntary participation is something I'd love to tap into.

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