Proof of Concept: Using Facebook as Identity on a Blog

Please accept my apologies for the third successive post about Facebook!

I wanted to show off a proof of concept I’ve developed of using Facebook as an identity system for your blog. The proof of concept doesn’t run on a real blog system – that is simply to keep it simple and because I didn’t want to spend a lot of time with the ins and outs of WordPress. I can see no reason why it couldn’t be adapted to integrate with WordPress/Drupal or whatever.

How does it work?

  • You’re on the blog page and you wish to make a comment.
  • You click on a link which takes you to the Facebook webpage.
  • If you haven’t before used your Facebook identity on this application before, you’ll be asked to give permission for it to access your personal information.
  • You are returned to the blog page, now logged in with your facebook identity.

Total development time was about 1 hour, took about 50 lines of code. If anybody is interested, I can open source the PHP source code.

As far as I can see, it follows the platform terms of use. The only information which my proof of concept has access to is your name and the URL of your Facebook avatar. This information is not stored except with your expressed consent (e.g. you post a comment).

Pop over to the proof of concept and feel free to login or to post a comment to try it out.

School Alumni Facebook Experiment Results

Halls Of Horror
Creative Commons License photo: DownTown Pictures

On Sunday I introduced my experiment with building a community through Facebook for a school alumni group. I’m pleased to be able to say that the Facebook application was complete yesterday and I can now discuss some of the results.

First of all, a little about the target audience. We are looking at sixth form college students in Britain (between 18-19 years old). In grand total, there are 200 students in total and that’s the total number of people we are aiming at. I would estimate that about 25% of the target audience doesn’t use the internet on a regular basis so the target figure of course is about 150.

We’ve had two attempts at creating a community around the school alumni group.

Attempt 1: Drupal

The first attempt involved using the open source Drupal CMS. The community featured forums, latest news and so on. The community was advertised primarily through real world posters and presentations. There was also a small campaign online to promote it via e-mail.

After one year, we managed about 50 registrations (33% of the target) of which about 5 are active. This means the community is actively used by about 4% of the target audience. In total, about 30 messages were received on the forums in the one year the community has been active.

I believe the main barrier to the success of this online community is the difficulty in creating an account. You need to set up yet another username, password and validate your e-mail address. That means people have to go to a lot of effort to join the community and the lack of active members in the community also limits the usefulness (more on this later).

Attempt 2: Facebook

This is the new alumni community which I launched yesterday lunchtime. The community has various features which are similar to the first attempt. The community again was promoted through real world posters and presentations, as well as online via email and messaging. This time, viral marketing also took place through various Facebook channels.

After just 24 hours, the community reached 75 users. That means we’re already half way towards the target of 150. Are people engaging with the application? We received 30 messages in just one day. According to Facebook statistics we received 1,100 page views in just the first 12 hours. For me, that’s astonishing growth – through a Facebook application we achieved the same results in under a day as it took a year to achieve on an external Drupal-based website.

From my perspective, the amount of work that it took to promote the Facebook application was much less than that of the external community.

Conclusions

Bright Atlanta
Creative Commons License photo: Nrbelex

A sceptic will point out that this is an unfair test because the two communities were obviously different in their designs and feature sets. I will say that when it came to launching the second community, I was much more experienced at creating and designing online communities so I was able to create a much more engaging community. But it is the fact that we opted for a Facebook application which allowed us to develop these engaging features. Many features have a critical mass of users below which it would not be useful.

The growth of community is proportional to its size. The constant of growth (k) depends on various factors:

  • The proportion of users who are active in the community
  • The proportion of users who engage in the community
  • The proportion of users who will let their friends know about the community
  • The conversion rate (invites to registrations)

I would say that Facebook applications have a much higher growth constant than other communities, for several reasons:

  • Easy to access; no additional URL, username, password to remember
  • There are additional communication channels through Facebook
  • It is much easier to build engaging community features through Facebook
  • Facebook has an invite system for users to share their favourite apps
  • Users already have Facebook accounts meaning the “barriers to registering” are almost zero: all they have to do is to tick a box granting an application access to their personal data.

Of course, it depends on the demographic of your userbase. This experiment was run with British teenagers, many of which have Facebook. Across other demographics, I believe implementing OpenSocial or OpenID could lead to similar benefits for online communities.

I’m very pleased with the results of this experiment and I would say it has confirmed some of the suspicions I had when I wrote my previous post. Of course, it’s something you can rip apart but I believe it’s well worth a think when you come to create your next online community!

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!

Sharing Phone Numbers & Your Privacy on Facebook

Paper cranes
Creative Commons License photo: Shereen M

One thing I don’t quite understand is why so many people always manage to lose their mobile phones and then decide they have to start a Facebook group asking everybody for their numbers. I can’t even go on Facebook without my news feed being cluttered with items such as “XXX has joined the group ‘YYY has lost her phone… numbers please!'”. As an example, search Facebook Groups for lost phone numbers.

Worse than that, the contents of group pages are essentially public and when people post their mobile numbers on the wall for the group, anybody in the world could see it. I think that’s something most people don’t realise. Your Facebook profile is protected such that only people on your friends list can see it: groups are public.

I remember placing my mobile number on my Facebook profile a few months ago and then I recieved a few really odd spammy texts shortly afterwards. My suspicion was that someone had perhaps got my number through Facebook (admittedly I don’t know half of the people on my friends list that well!) and decided to spam text it!

Saying that, it’s very useful for other people for you to have a phone number on your Facebook page. So here are my privacy recommendations for sharing your phone number on Facebook:

  • On your friends page, click on “Make a New List” in the right column. For example, I’ve created a group of people that I know fairly well from college. Now go to your Facebook Privacy page. From here, you can make your mobile phone number only visible to the group you’ve just created. From the same page, you can change the privacy settings for your current address, land line number, IM screen name and so on.
  • Don’t create groups asking for other people’s phone numbers. Use the phonebook which lists the phone numbers of your friends. If you must, use an event instead. This is because events can be marked as “private” and visible only to people who are invited.
  • Last of all, don’t post your mobile number on the wall of a public group. Instead, send a private message.

Facebook to Open Source Platform

Keep back from the Platform Edge
Creative Commons License photo: Annie Mole

Inside Facebook reports that Facebook is to open source their developer platform. A spokesman from Facebook said:

We’re working on an open-source initiative that is meant to help application developers better understand Facebook Platform and more easily build applications, whether it’s by running their own test servers, building tools, or optimizing their applications. As Facebook Platform continues to mature, open-sourcing the infrastructure behind it is a natural step so developers can build richer social applications and share what they’ve learned with the ecosystem. Additional details will be released soon.

I absolutely love the Facebook platform. I recently developed a small application for Facebook. It really isn’t hard at all to develop an application if you know PHP and once you’ve got the PHP environment set up. You need to keep in mind that you can only use a subset of HTML. You can also use FBML which is dead easy. Facebook also has a SQL-like language called FQL which is dead easy if you know SQL and is a really nice way to get data from Facebook.

You can also hook into Facebook Mobile to send and receive SMS text messages for free but for some reason it doesn’t seem to have taken off amongst the larger applications yet.

I’ll write a little more about my experiences with the Facebook platform soon but it’s great news that it’s being open sourced. It certainly gives me a bit more confidence to use the Facebook platform without worrying about having to rewrite everything at a later date if it appears that OpenSocial sites will dominate.

Facebook applications can steal personal data

The BBC discovered that personal details of Facebook users can be easily stolen by applications.

But a malicious program, masquerading as a harmless application, could potentially harvest personal data.
Facebook says users should exercise caution when adding applications. Any programs which violate their terms will be removed, the network said.

The reason why this is worrying is because there are so many pointless applications on Facebook such as IQ tests and random “Which character from Lazy Town/Star Trek are you?” quizzes. And there is no way to tell what they do with your data. Spammers can easily create applications to steal your personal data and all you need to do is to accept an invite. (In fact some applications trick you by setting the text of one of the buttons to “No, thanks” or something so that declining to install the application still leads to it being installed.

Now, Facebook does have a confirmation screen where you can choose which pieces of personal info you’re willing to share with the application. The problem is that you need to make the decision without knowing what the application will do with it and whether the application needs that information in order to function correctly.

I have worried in the past about installing Firefox extensions for the same reason. A Firefox extension has access to your entire computer and private information about the sites you visit, etc. However, I think the Firefox team do a great job of ensuring that bad extensions get weeded out. Mozilla Add-On reviewers presumably check the source code of all submitted extensions (and most extensions are open source unless binary). With Facebook applications, Facebook can’t even access the source code of applications as they are hosted on third party servers.

In fact, the only way we can see of completely protecting yourself from applications skimming information about you and your friends is to erase all the applications on your profile and opt to not use any applications in the future.

Perhaps something for all us Facebook users to think about.

Facebook Relationship Statuses

I found this picture from CollegeHumor really funny. But beyond that, it’s a great commentary on how Facebook and the Social Web is changing people’s relationships and how they communicate with each another.


It’s time for Facebook to introduce a new relationship status: It’s an effing disaster.
(from CollegeHumor)

In fact, a disturbing trend is how some youngsters have switched from splitting up with partners via text to splitting up by changing their Facebook relationship status.

Conversation Trends on Facebook – Facebook Lexicon

Facebook has just released Facebook Lexicon which visualises conversation trends on Facebook.

Lexicon is a tool to follow language trends across Facebook. Specifically, Lexicon looks at the usage of words and phrases on profile, group and event Walls. For example, you can enter “love, hate” (without quotations) to compare the usage of these two words on Facebook Walls. You may enter up to five terms, where each term can be a word or two-word phrase consisting of letters and numbers.

This could be a really interesting way of doing some market research. So I gave it a spin:

Next President of the United States

Who are people raving about the most? John McCain, Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama? According to Facebook, Obama is well in the lead. Theres a fair amount of discussion about John McCain too, even though he isn’t involved in any primaries and he will be the republican candidate. Presumably the peaks in the graph correspond to primaries.

Facebook Lexicon

Applying for University 

This ones quite close to my heart. In the UK, we use a system called UCAS to apply for university. You can apply as early as October 1st with the deadline for Oxbridge candidates being October 15th and January 15th for everybody else. So when did people write their UCAS application statements and submit them?

Facebook Lexicon

According to Facebook, most people did so in October and November. Over Christmas people obviously had better things to do but you can see a huge spike near about the middle of January indicating quite a lot of people obviously left it until the last minute. From February onwards people are still talking about UCAS: this could be people receiving their offers.

E4 Skins Teenage Television Drama 

A popular television show in Britain amongst teenagers is “Skins”. It’s been on TV over the last few weeks, concluding this Monday.

Lexicon

You can see there’s a lot of interest right at the start of the series which gradually dies down. People seemed to lose interest around episode 7 (Effy) but it picked up towards the end. Of course, each of the peaks on the graph is a Monday (the day which Skins is shown on TV) and there is a fair amount of discussion on Tuesday too: possibly from people catching up on Channel 4 on Demand.

Parties and Hangovers 

When do most people go to parties and have their hangovers? Saturday night is a marginally busier night than Friday for parties and hangovers peak on Sunday.

Lexicon

Vivaty: 3D Virtual World for Facebook

Vivaty looks like a really interesting application – it’s a 3D social networking application a little like Second Life but plugs in to Facebook:

Grab your photos and videos – any image from the web – and you’re in. Hang out, chat with friends, watch videos, listen to music, and more. Jump from scene to scene with anyone you invite, your Facebook friends are just clicks away. It’s all in the browser, no waiting for big downloads to install. You’ll be saying “your place or mine?” in no time.

The idea is you create an avatar and a your own “scene” where you can hang out. But Vivaty claims to provide a lot more than just providing live chat. For example, you can add a television to your scene to watch YouTube and then invite your friends over to your scene to watch it together.

The problem with many “social web 2.0” websites is that they don’t have access to your social graph and friends list. This is why I think Facebook is an amazing platform for social web apps and why I would instantly switch over to IM which utilises Facebook’s friends list. I have accounts on sites like del.icio.us, Flickr and Youtube but it’s just not the same: most people don’t have accounts on these sites so it’s much harder to share your photos and videos.

I think Vivaty could take off, certainly amongst the Second Life crowd. I’m not sure whether the typical Facebook user would be interested in Vivaty however: Facebook users tend to be college students at the very youngest and tend to be fairly busy people.

Maybe somebody would be interested in beta testing Vivaty but otherwise: one to watch!

Facebook Chat Launching

Facebook Chat is currently being launched – it has been rolled out to the first networks this morning according to Inside Facebook. I previously reported on this and linked to a video which showed Facebook Chat in operation.

From the screenshots on Inside Facebook, it looks like a fairly simple browser-based IM client which works very similarly to Gmail Chat. There is a bit of convergence between Facebook and Gmail in that both try to build a browser-based IM system on existing social networks and both are planning or have implemented Jabber/XMPP.

It looks like a really nice way to communicate and quite a few people have said that this will encourage them to leave Facebook open all day. Chat API is set to be added in a future update to Facebook chat (applications can’t integrate with it yet).

I’d be really interested in hearing what people think of Facebook Chat when it’s rolled out to their account. I’m quite convinced that Facebook will become a major player in IM simply because of the quality of the friends list. But I could be wrong; it may simply be more a reflection on how I use Facebook than others.