An Experiment Building Communities in Facebook

Way to the future right now
Creative Commons License photo: ionushi

In the old days, I used to be a big fan of forums. By forums I mean the ones which are attached to a website and run on vBulletin, phpBB or something. They were great places to meet people and to keep in touch with your friends. Forums, for me, served two purposes: the social aspect and the information aspect – gossip and opinions.

Almost every webmaster in the world wanted a forum on their website and I remember all kinds of free BBS hosting websites around such as MyIkonBoard, ProBoards. Of course, those same webmasters would then create about 20 or 30 forums and never receive a single post.

A couple of years ago, blogs took off on the internet. For me, blogs replaced forums as a source of information. I used to subscribe to over 100 RSS feeds on a whole range of topics which supplanted forums as the primary source of gossip. I find blogs tend to be better researched and better sources of information.

One downside of blogs was that they never had the communities which would build up around forums (there are exceptions; sites such as Digg and Slashdot seem to have pretty active communities). So whilst blogs supplanted the whole “information gathering” aspect of forums, they never replaced the community aspect.

A previous experiment of mine was Geneone, a PHP “community management system” which tried to blend blogs, forums and webpages into one community. The reason why I built it was because at the time, the major blog, forum and content management systems wouldn’t work together. For me, integration shouldn’t be an afterthought: it should be built into the very pillars of the software.

| apple-command |
Creative Commons License photo: arquera

We released several betas of Geneone and ran the software at neonDragon.net for quite a while (and it’s still used on some parts of the site). Unfortunately, time constraints prevented me from ever producing a release-ready version of the software and anyways, Drupal did a fairly good job.

In the mean time, over the last few years social networking websites have really taken off. I’m a huge fan of Facebook. I’ve worked with the Facebook Platform a little over the past few months and I still think it’s a vast goldmine of untapped opportunity. Recently open sourced, I believe the Facebook Platform is going to be the catalyst and the glue between “social web” or “Web 2.0” applications. There is so much potential in the social web which we haven’t seen. The 90s belonged to Microsoft, the 00s (naughties?) belonged to Google. I believe the next decade will belong to Facebook.

The infrastructure which would allow anybody to integrate Facebook into their web applications today already exists and I guess I’m kind of surprised that nobody has done it yet.

I’ve recently begun an experiment to build a “mini social network” inside of Facebook. Essentially, we want to build a social network around our school alumni to share messages and photos. In the old days, we would have used a message forum to do this. What I’m trying to do is to replace the humble message forum with a Facebook Application.

The advantages of this are numerous:

  • Almost every young person in Britain already has a Facebook account so there are no worries about getting people to sign up. As soon as somebody adds your application on Facebook, you have access to their (real) name, photo and various other personal information from their profile.
  • Young people regularly use Facebook. This makes Facebook a “passive” communication tool rather than an “active” one. With standalone websites and forum sites, people have to make a proactive effort to regularly check them. A more extreme example would be the telephone: you must make a phone call to hear the latest gossip. With Facebook, it’s delivered to you and it requires no effort on your own part – this makes it “passive”.
  • The Facebook Platform saves a lot of time. In the course of developing a standard PHP application, you must write routines to manage accounts, login states, PM systems, templating, email validation and more. Facebook does pretty much all of that for you.
  • The application can integrate with various channels which promote it virally. For example, when a user adds your application, friends may find out about it on their news feeds.

Look Up
Creative Commons License photo: mrhayata

Facebook already provides a “Groups” feature which could serve as a very simple social network. But to be frank, the Groups feature sucks. It’s “active” because you need to make a proactive effort to check the group regularly; there is no way to organise photos; the message board lacks in functionality and there is no way to have any privacy.

Anyway, that’s what I’m experimenting with at the moment. It remains to see how successful it’ll be.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it’ll be long until somebody manages to get phpBB working inside of Facebook. It shouldn’t take more than a little code to integrate with Facebook’s user system. And I think we’ll be seeing use of the Facebook Platform within the next generation of social web applications and websites.

Watch this space!

2 thoughts on “An Experiment Building Communities in Facebook

  1. Seriously? Facebook? Facebook is just too hard to use. No good menu structure, all the pages look the same and different, no automation, so much wasted time. Every “web 2.0 Layperson” I talk to can’t figure it out or finds it pointless and/or unintuitive. I can appreciate the need you’re talking about, but unless the UI is improved and you can get some kind of dashboard that lets newcomers understand it and figure out how to use it and how it can benefit them quickly, Facebook won’t unify anything.

    -M

  2. Forums still have their place, social networking sites and a good forum are not comparable. One is for socialising, arranging things between friends (you already know) and the other is the exchange of ideas and information. Facebook won’t replace forums.

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