January 11th, 2009

meme sheep

What I've learned about Facebook

This is written from the perspective of a LiveJournal user, geek, and former technical writer. I hope it will be helpful to those of you who are new to FB or considering joining.

LiveJournal is a blogging site. The primary activities on LJ are writing blog posts, reading blog posts, and commenting on blog posts. Blog posts can include links, photos, videos, polls, and memes but these all exist within the context of a blog post. LiveJournal users have profiles and can give each other "v-gifts" but these are not important parts of my LJ subculture.

Facebook is a social networking site rather than primarily a blogging site; the type of interaction that FB's design encourages is broader, but shallower, than LJ's. Don't knock it... this shallow interaction, I believe, accounts for FB's much greater popularity with the general public. Because FB's population is so huge, it's much better than LJ for establishing and maintaining contact with more of your real-world friends and acquaintances.

It is important to understand that Facebook is a "platform" that supports a large number of "applications," only some of which are related to blogging. Even some basic FB features, such as groups and events, are separate applications running on the FB platform (provided by Facebook itself). Other applications are provided by third parties, such as Pirates and Vampire Wars. Because of this open architecture, the number of different things you can do on FB is daunting:
  • Write a Note (which is what FB calls a blog post). You can also arrange for notes to be imported automatically from any other blog with an RSS feed.
  • Update your Status. This is like a Twitter tweet, or like a blog post that is very short and written in the third person.
  • Write a comment on someone else's Note or Status.
  • Write on someone's Wall. A Wall post is kind of like a comment on the user rather than any specific post.
  • Post a Photo, Video, or Link (with commentary). These are distinct objects in addition to being things that can exist within Notes.
  • Become a Friend of another user. I'm not certain, but I believe that, unlike LJ, Friendship in FB must be mutual. I don't think there's any way for you to see my stuff unless I'm also seeing your stuff (but see comments on privacy settings below).
  • Create or join a Group. These are pseudo-users like LJ communities.
  • Create or respond to an Event. This is the thing that made me join FB, because some of my real-world friends were using FB to invite people to parties and handle RSVPs.
  • Create or join a Page. "Pages" in FB are like users except that they represent a TV show, actor, band, cause, etc. Joining a Page is referred to as "becoming a Fan" of the TV show, actor, etc. Pages include their own Wall, Notes, Photos, Events, comments, etc.
  • "Poke" someone (I'm not exactly sure what the point of this is, but LJ has an equivalent Nudge feature).
  • Take an application-specific action such as playing a game of Scrabble, giving someone a flower, attacking someone's pirate ship, or inviting someone else to install the application so you can play together. I have not accepted any of these so I can't tell you any more about them. It seems to me that this is potentially the biggest time sink in FB.
  • Update your Profile (add or change your address, relationship status, etc.)
Whenever you take any of the above actions (note: this includes Profile updates!), by default this fact is immediately announced to every one of your Friends. You can control which items are announced and to whom by selecting Privacy Settings from the Settings menu in the upper right of every page, then clicking "News Feed and Wall."

Your Friends' actions are visible to you in various ways, all on your Home page:
  • The News Feed (the first tab on the Home page) is a list of your Friends' actions, filtered to only the most interesting items. The filtering algorithm is mysterious, but you can tweak it by either clicking the little pencil that appears on the right when you hover over an item (you can specify that you would like to see more or fewer items of this type or from this user) or by clicking the "Options for News Feed" link all the way at the bottom of this page.
  • The Live Feed (fourth tab on the Home page, at least for me) is an unfiltered list of all your Friends' actions, updated in real time. You can view it in Log Mode (subjects only) or Full Stories by clicking the links in the upper right.
  • The Status Updates, Photos, and Posted Items tabs on the Home page show only Status updates, Photo posts, and Posted Items (Links, Photos, Pages, Notes, etc. but not Status updates) for all your Friends.
  • The down-arrow (last tab on the Home page) lets you select more views of your Friends' actions, filtered to specific applications or to specific Friend Lists.
Friend Lists are the same as in LJ... they are subsets of your Friends, the existence and contents of which are visible ony to you (I think), which you can use both to filter your view of your Friends' actions and to control which of your Friends see what information of yours. I strongly encourage creating Friend Lists immediately upon creation of your account, before beginning to add Friends, because it's much easier (and more secure) to place each new Friend into an existing group than to create groups after the Friends have already shown up.

FB also includes the concept of Networks. The available Networks are defined by Facebook rather than by individual users, and they consist of schools, companies, and cities or regions. You have to have a school or company email address to join a school/company Network. If you aren't in school, this feature isn't as useful.

One difference between LJ and FB is that in FB you have a great deal of control over who can see what information about you. (This is controlled by selecting Privacy Settings from the Settings menu in the upper right of every page.) For example, you can limit visibility of your cell phone number to certain Networks or Friend Lists, while making your home phone number visible to a different set of Networks or Friend Lists. Note, however, that your relationship status, gender, birthday, and political and religious views are all considered "Basic Info," and these are enabled/disabled as a group rather than individually.

You can also control which actions are announced to your friends, though this can't be filtered by Friend List. Note that by default, all actions are announced. If you change your relationship status from Unspecified to Married after you've been on the site for a few days, prepare for an avalanche of congratulatory responses.

In addition to all the above, you can send private messages direct to another user (or group of users), and chat in realtime.

Hope this is useful to someone! If I've gotten anything wrong, corrections are welcomed.

ETA: Here's an interesting article about some privacy issues on Facebook: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080107/melber