Why I’m not on Facebook

Okay, I’m admitting it: I’m not on Facebook. Not at all. Don’t have a profile there, and never have. Do I have to turn in my NextGen Librarian card now?

It’s not that I’m social-media-challenged; I’ve got a blog (and not a hosted blog, either), don’t I? I’m on Twitter, del.icio.us, and Flickr; I use both Bloglines and Google Reader. I flatter myself that I’m pretty social-media-aware, actually. So why not Facebook?

Let’s turn the question around and ask, rather, “why should I be on Facebook? The usual argument for why I should be on Facebook goes something like this:

  1. All of our students are on Facebook; it defines how they interact with each other and with information. We need to understand how our students understand information and the web, so we need to understand Facebook, and the best way to understand Facebook is to create an account and start messing around with it.
  2. Come on, everyone’s on Facebook? Don’t you want to join in?

I’m going to address these arguments in reverse order, since I think the first one is actually the more important one. To address the second argument, why wouldn’t I want to join in the fun? Well, I would like to join in the fun, actually, and I’ve been seriously tempted not a few times. But then I think, “do I really need another online social site sucking at my already insanely skimpy free time?” I spend quite a lot of time each day reading blogs, checking in on Twitter, looking at my contacts’ photos on Flickr (mostly their adorable kids’ photos, actually), and participating on old-school forum sites. Given that, for me, free time is a zero-sum game, what am I willing to give up in order to do this? The answer turned out to be, not much.

Then there’s the problem of overlapping online identities. As I see it, I have three distinct online identities/presences:

  1. my professional one, which encompasses this blog, some of my Twitter activity and contacts, some of my del.icio.us bookmarks, and my Google Reader feeds;
  2. my personal one, which encompasses my Flickr photos, some of my Twitter and del.icio.us stuff, my Bloglines feeds, and my other blog; and
  3. a pseudonymous profile that I use on one or two forum sites where I’d prefer to protect my privacy.

Which of these do I establish on Facebook? Obviously not the pseudonymous one, but I still have this image of a bizarre collision of librarian colleagues, distant family members, and college classmates that I haven’t seen in 20 years. Thanks, but no thanks.

The first, and more important, argument for why I should be on Facebook revolves around the theory that the best (some might argue the only) way to understand a technology is to jump in and muck around with it for a while. I don’t disagree, but I also think there’s room for the possibility that you can, if you pay attention, absorb what you need to know about a technology without actually doing that technology. When a technology is so endemic in a community, as Facebook is, and there’s enough backchatter about the technology among those who serve that community, as there is among librarians about Facebook, I think we can hardly manage not to know a little about it.

That’s what happened with me and instant messaging, in fact: for years I’d been hearing the call to “get on IM” because “all the students are doing it and we have to know where their heads are at.” Well, I didn’t get on IM at the time because nobody I conversed with regularly made a point of asking me to do so, but I understood the concept well enough that, when I took a job in 2004 that required me to use AIM for intra-office communication, I got an account, jumped in, and was up and chatting in less than 5 minutes.

So, I know that Facebook consists of profiles, and photos, and networks of friends and groups, and photos, and everybody has a “wall” that people write stuff on, and there are photos, and status updates that tell you about what a person is doing (digression: Pride and Prejudice told through Facebook status updates), and did I mention the photos, and there are games you can play and sheep you can throw.

Do I really need to throw a sheep (or have one thrown at me) to understand that there are sheep, and you throw them?

More seriously, though, if our library decided to establish a presence on Facebook, or decided that librarians needed to be present on Facebook to do outreach to students, or if I had the slightest indication from our students that our presence on Facebook would be welcome, I’d establish an account and jump into the fray, just as I did with IM (which, I have to point out, I use a whole lot less now that I’m no longer in that job). Until then, Facebook is on my radar and I’m keeping tabs on what’s going on with it, but I don’t really feel a compelling need to be there.

Update, Feb. 3, 2009: Laura Blankenship makes some of the same points I just did in her post, “The Problem With Facebook.” I like the way the article she cites identifies the problem as a lack of granularity of friendship. Flickr does this pretty well, with its categories of Contacts, Friends, and Family, but ideally I think you’d want to have a whole lot of categories, with varying degrees of access and notification and flexibility to change who sees what. Something more akin to WordPress’s roles and capabilities (which perhaps is too much granularity, but at least you don’t have to use all of it).

Update, Mar. 18, 2009: Michelle Boule has a post about her long-delayed entry into Facebook, which makes the excellent point that nearly everything that Facebook does, is done better by other online services (blogs, Flickr, Twitter, etc.).  But she also notes that “for someone who has no other online presence, facebook is pretty cool. You can join groups, find friends, chat, send messages, send presents, microblog… [emphasis mine]”  And I think this points at a very interesting phenomenon:  Facebook is a one-stop shop for folks who don’t have or don’t want to learn the technical skills to do all of this on their own.  Okay, so it’s not that hard to set up a Flickr account or install an IM client or set up an externally-hosted blog, but it’s all done for you (essentially) on Facebook.  And it’s all seamlessly integrated.  And that’s really awesome – it’s a little like what Apple does, in bundling all the essential “fun” software and hardware (iPhoto, built-in webcams, etc.) and having it all work together without the end user having to configure everything.  Worth thinking about.

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