Cautions to Learning Professionals Implementing Social Media from the Facebook Brouhaha (Part 1)

If you’re not a frequent user of Facebook or plugged into the stream of technology buzz, you may not even know there is a Facebook Brouhaha. Though recently, even mainstream media has picked up the story. I think the situation bears watching because it can be instructive for building and deploying your own social learning or knowledge management systems.

So, just what is the fuss all about? The long and short of it is that, Facebook has, over the past several months, been changing the way it makes the information you post on Facebook available to others. When Facebook started out, one of the things that separated it from MySpace and other internet-sharing sites was that anything you shared on Facebook was private and could only be seen by people you had agreed to let view your information as a “Friend.” This created an environment where many people felt comfortable posting pictures, videos, and updates about themselves and their family.

Now that Facebook has over 500 million users, it is looking to expand how it uses that information you share. Now from a business perspective, Facebook is looking for ways to generate more revenue from your content. It also is making it the default setting that everything you post is now public, unless you dig through the privacy settings and manually make things private. Just how convoluted is this process to protect your information? Well, all facebook.com recently published a post on the 10 Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know. That’s right TEN settings you have to manually review and adjust to keep control over who sees your content!

These changes have created quite a stir (or brouhaha) among the technorati, some going so far as to start online campaigns to get people to cancel their Facebook accounts. (This, by-the-way, is not an easy feat to accomplish and even if you cancel they keep an archive of the content you have shared.) Two senators have even called for Senate investigations into Facebook’s privacy practices. And four enterprising young New York University students have raised over $100,000 for their plan to build an open-source Facebook replacement.

Now the problem with these calls to cancel your Facebook account, or switch to another platform, is those 500 million or so Facebook users. These create a nearly overwhelming pressure to use Facebook. If all of your friends, family and network are using Facebook to stay up-to-date, share the latest baby photos, and organize events, then if you aren’t on Facebook, you are out in the cold. This social network pressure probably will allow Facebook to blissfully continue on with its practice of unilaterally changing its social contract with its users with impunity.

So what are these cautions mentioned in the headline? Well, there are probably a number of them, but as it relates to developing and deploying social learning tools inside organizations there are two that I would like to suggest. I’ll discuss one here and the second in a follow-up post.

Caution 1: Be careful with the social contract that you create with contributors and users of your system. Unlike traditional classroom training programs or even elearning or mobile learning programs, the success (and possible failure) of a social learning or knowledge management system lies in the hands of the users and contributors. In traditional or even cutting edge training programs, the designers and developers carefully craft the content and experience to maximize the likelihood of achieving the course objectives. This means that, while a learner may value and even use the material taught, they don’t develop a sense of ownership for it. The ownership lies with the developers, and possibly a small group of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Contrast this to the social learning environment where the contributors of content have a real sense of ownership.

This ownership of content is where the caution lies in changing your social contract with users. Facebook’s original distinction was “your content belongs to you and you control who you share it with.” Their recent privacy setting changes have stood this implied contract on its head, and that is what has generated such a fire-storm.

The lessons for us in the social learning space?

a) Think carefully about how the system you are developing not only is going to be used today, but also what it might evolve into in the future.

b) Be sure to let your users know up-front how their contributions will be used now and possibly in the future.

c) If you do make a significant use change, give the user some control over how this use change impacts their contributions. (One of Facebook’s big mistakes is that the new “share publicly” setting is the default setting unless you manually go in and change it.)

d) Make opt-in rather than opt-out the norm. For example, after six months you might decide to implement an emailed digest of contributions to groups at the end of each day. If I am a member of eight different groups, I just got eight new emails (that I didn’t specifically ask for) in my inbox. Rather than have this type of thing “just happen” and require actions on the users part to avoid, make it opt-in. Again, give the user/contributor control.

Changes to the user contract is just one of the cautions that this Facebook dustup has brought to mind. In my next post, I’ll explore the ones that Facebook having 500 million users bring to mind.

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