Facebook and Rapport

Facebook appears to be the latest and best thing in the World Wide Web right now. This poses a challenge to libraries.   For instance, while many libraries are exploring library search applications, others are concerned that students do not want their librarians in their social space.

While some critics will tell you that Library 2.0 is no different from previous service models, others will say that services like Facebook pose a problem largely because of library culture. I concur with the latter view, not because I think Library 2.0 strategies are always better, but because Library 2.0 strategies require librarians to unlearn certain things in order to be truly effective.

Ok. So let me start with the Facebook library search application. It is fine, but my opinion is that few people besides librarians are going to add the applications to their profiles. The technology is Web 2.0, but the strategy is still Library 1.0. Why? Because the model is still, “I am librarian. I can help. Come to me (ie. my Facebook page) and I will serve.” The applications, though offering marginally better service for little cost, are not taking advantage of what Facebook offers its clients.

A Facebook application should be something your average person wants to show their friends. The most obvious application, therefore, is something that shows the books you enjoy reading. Unfortunately, Books iRead already beat us to that punch. But thinking in a Facebook way requires some innovation — we need to give something with which the user will identify. Off the top of my head, how about an application that provides a cartoony-like character that identifies the user as a certain kind of geek, according to a specific discipline? Then, the cartoon offers a series of articles, books and websites that display the geeky interest? For instance, an Anthro geek would have a series of citations related to Anthropology. This avenue is cheekier, more likely to be applied to a user’s page, and, in the end, a totally foreign approach to service for librarians.   Another possibility is to offer people a Dewey or LC code — though you might get into trouble for that.

Consider this a challenge, but I’d be surprised to see a library come up with anything comparable to these ideas in the near future. Given time, some developer may steal these ideas though (or something like them) — in fact, similar applications  may exist already. A library would be concerned about its “professional” image; a developer would just make it happen — assuming the idea is feasible and sound. A librarian-entrepreneur might make it happen outside of the confines of their library, but I’ve already discussed that issue.

I do not intend this to be another slight on “non-hip” or “change resisting” librarians. This is library culture. It is the stuff that has helped us survive for decades or even longer. But it is not a library 2.0 strategy. I am not convinced that a Library 2.0 strategy is necessarily what we ought to be doing, but what we are pretending is library 2.0 is actually not very.

Facebook, Librarians and Culture

In the end, the reason students will say they do not want to see librarians and educators on Facebook is that the culture of Libraries clashes with the culture of Facebook. If we approach Facebook using our typical library assumptions and with little awareness of typical Facebook assumptions, we will be intruders on the Facebook territory. If we can establish rapport with the Facebook community, we will matter to them.

Culture is important to any community interaction, and Facebook is a complex web of community interaction. I have a Facebook profile. It would be fairly difficult to understand which friends are important to me. Some “friends” are actually “friends” in my world. Others are merely people I’ve encountered in my travels through life. Some are old high school buddies I’m keeping track of. Others are just people who “friended” me and I was too polite to just say “leave me alone.”

That said, to say that Facebook does not have a culture would be wrong. Here are some basic Facebook traits based on my own observations.

  • The Facebook model affirms extroversion. Even if you are the sort to have only a few good friends in your life, that attitude will not get you far on Facebook. How can you tell? Well, look at how the Facebook application assumes you want more friends. Not only that — it assumes that your friends want the same Facebook applications.   It even assumes that when you remove a relationship detail on your profile, it’s because of a breakup.
  • Unlike MySpace, the Facebook model tries to set itself apart from the World Wide Web. The goal is not to be “out there” but “in here” — “here” being Facebook itself. Evidence? Look at the login screen — very plain, divulging very little about what’s going on inside. Apparently this is changing somewhat, but the fact that this is considered a change tells you that the assumption exists.
  • Facebook assumes that its users want their attention diverted. “Poke” exists for no other reason than to divert your attention to your friends. A good number of Facebook applications are actually advanced “poking” utilities. For instance there is “superpoke” which lets you slap instead of poke. There are also Pirate and Jedi related pokes for people to play around with.

For libraries to engage Facebook requires rapport. Establishing such a rapport takes at least four things.

  1. Understand the culture of the Facebook universe (covered in part above)
  2. Understand the bits of the Facebook universe that clash with library culture. For instance, Facebook wants the World Wide Web to be “outside” Facebook; libraries want to try and bring such resources “in.”
  3. Use cross-cultural communication techniques to put the library message/service on the same wavelength as Facebook.
  4. Do the above without sacrificing the things that make libraries unique and important.

In more specific terms, though — when engaging a service on Facebook libraries should:

  • Aim toward extroversion — the goal is not only to be friendly, and approachable, but inquisitive — chatty even. Banter is what Facebook is all about. You need to ask people questions and understand what it is they like. You also need to ask yourself, “how is a library search box extroverted?”
  • Consider that your staff are probably already out there on your behalf. For instance, a Halifax Public Libraries group already exists and a number of staff are connected already.
  • Pay close attention to the Terms of Use on Facebook. You do not want to find your applications turned off and rejected because they apply principles foreign to the service. Steve Lawson noticed a sudden scare when the first library applications for Facebook came out.
  • Applications are bits of information that you want Facebook users to put on their profiles. To put something on my profile, I want to identify with it and/or I want my friends to know I identify with it.
  • Be fun — Banks don’t offer loans on Facebook (yet). Accountants don’t do your taxes on Facebook (yet). If you have a Facebook strategy, it has to be a relatively non-business-like strategy.