Culture and social networking sites

Thursday, January 17th 2008

Some of the most interesting conversations I had at Midwinter were about the need for libraries to understand the culture of a social networking website before trying to market services through it. Here’s a couple of great posts on the topic.

I’ve actually been meaning to post about this for a while. At my previous job, I experimented with creating a basic Facebook application that could search the catalog and a few other information silos. It worked great. Just one problem: nobody used it. Not one person installed the application who wasn’t staff or a student worker.

I didn’t take the culture of Facebook into account when creating that app. Why do people go to the site? Not to do scholarly research, that’s for sure. Or even if they did – why clutter up your profile with yet another application when it adds no value at all? Clicking to a similar search page on the library’s website was a far more convenient process than navigating through Facebook’s interface.

So let’s turn it around – instead of lamenting what students don’t like on Facebook, focus on what they do like. One simple response is that they love widgets. Little profile gadgets that show off some aspect of their personality or daily life. They also love updating status messages, telling the world a little about where they are or what they’re doing. So, why not combine these? Create an application which lets users pick a spot on the library floor plan and display that on their profile. “When I’m studying at the library you can find me here!” Students learn a little bit about the library’s layout while finding their spot, and the presence of the widget reminds their friends that the library exists.

Of course, I’d want to put a lot more thought into a project like this before going ahead with it. With social networking site endeavors, there is a fine line to walk. Some things are worth doing regardless of potential impact, just because they’re so simple. For example: Set up a Facebook Page for your library with a Meebo IM widget. (This has the added bonus of preventing someone else from setting up a Page with your library’s name…) That project would take about fifteen minutes for someone reasonably familiar with how Facebook is set up. Even if only one single person ever takes advantage of the service, it is probably still a worthwhile use of time. But I ultimately threw away a lot of time on my Facebook catalog search widget, an end product which has had absolutely zero impact.

We can’t just wade into the middle of a social networking site and proclaim we know what is best for it. I am extremely disturbed that some librarians are actively working to circumvent anti-spam measures in Facebook (as reported on the PLA Blog). This not only annoys users, but also runs the risk of getting the library booted off of Facebook entirely.

Different libraries can have very different user populations walking through their front doors, and libraries put a lot of effort into understanding those populations’ needs. Why should the online world be any different?

17. January 2008 by Chad Haefele
Categories: Libraries/Info Sci, Ramblings | Leave a comment

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