professional reflections

HEIs Get Facebook Fever (again)

LandRun.jpeg Facebook rolled out its ' usernames' function today. This is a new feature at Facebook which allows a user to claim their little bit of the Facebook namespace, along the lines of:

http://www.facebook.com/[preferred_name]/

The process started at 05:00 am UK local time - on a Saturday morning - yet several people in my social and professional networks got up early to claim their personalised Facebook URL. Not all were successful despite this determination, and some ended up having to settle for some variation on their preferred username.

As for me, I enjoyed a rare lie-in :-)

So, why do people think this is important - and worth getting up at 05:00 for? And why am I not 'bovvered'? From the various commentaries I've seen so far - blog posts and Twitter discussion primarily, here are some aspects & motives I've identified so far, and some of the issues I have with them.

Fear of someone else registering your preferred username

This seems to be the main reason for the 05:00 land-grab. The motivation for registering a username appears to be, primarily, a defensive one. I guess there's a sense that this might become important. The majority of people, from my very limited straw-poll, seem to fall into this category. While I don't personally feel the need, I understand this reasoning.

Wanting to be able to offer a neat & personalised Facebook URL for you or your organisation

This is covered by Brian Kelly - he describes the decision to register a Facebook URL for an organisational Facebook page as a 'no-brainer', and lists a few higher-education institutions (HEIs) which have rushed to register a URL.

In his post, Brian asks:

So tell me, what is the logic in having a personal or institutional Facebook account and keeping the long form for its address? Or are the tweets I’ve been seeing simply a minority view from the ideological purists….?

For some people, the personalised URL is immediately important as they intend to use it as a personal 'identifier'. The motivations here are convenience - such a URL can be much more memorable, and 'vanity' - a personalised URL is undoubtedly more satisfying and attractive. (Note, I use the term 'vanity' here as it has been used by others in this context and I don't intend any pejorative sense that this term might convey).

So, why was I lounging in bed rather than rushing to claim my Facebook ID, and why would I hesitate ('ideological purity' aside!) before registering and publicising a URL for my HEI?

  1. I have a personal namespace, having registered the domain 'paulwalk.net'. This is also my OpenID, through the use of delegation (I have already changed OpenID identity provider twice without changing my OpenID). I realise that maintaining a personal domain is not yet a mainstream activity - yet I'm frequently surprised by the fact that many of those generally very tech-savvy people in my professional/social networks do not bother to do this, instead investing a major part of their online identities with companies such as wordpress.com or Facebook.
  2. Do you trust Facebook? How much? Because, by registering a Facebook URL and publicising it, you just tied a potentially major part of your online identity with the fortunes and behaviour of this company. As an individual, this risk might be worth the convenience perhaps. But as an HEI - why would you want to introduce this risk when you already own and manage your own namespace?
  3. As an HEI, you will have, no doubt, invested considerably in establishing a strong URL-based online brand, being careful with search engine optimisation and the like. Why then would you introduce a competing URL which will tend to dilute your primary Web address's prominence? It may be that some HEIs have, after careful deliberation, decided to base their online identity and the marketing of their organisation on the Facebook platform - but I'd be amazed if this were true. So what exactly is the point in establishing a public Facebook URL for your organisation?

An expectation that Facebook will become an OpenID identity provider in the future

More tech-savvy users recognise that the Facebook URL they claim could soon become an OpenID. If they are a regular user of Facebook, this could offer a measure of convenience in the sense that their identity provider will be also a service provider which they use frequently. But as the usability issues with OpenID (and there are several) are gradually ironed out, we can expect to see OpenID's importance as an 'identifying system' rather than an authenticating mechanism come to the fore. Using Facebook (or any equivalent service provider) as an identity provider will make less and less sense.

Time will tell

It may be that I am wrong about these issues. However, I have challenged the HEI sector's desire to jump on the Facebook bandwagon in the past, and I have not seen much evidence to convince me that Facebook is a significant platform for engagment with students. As part of a marketing strategy, it probably makes sense to maintain some sort of presence in Facebook - just as it might make sense to establish a presence in various other systems. But on the public Web, an HEI's identity must surely be kept independent of any private commercial concern. The mechanisms for ensuring this are well established. And, increasingly, we can begin to apply these mechanisms to our individual identities.

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