Social networking a bust?

Sarah Houghton-Jan links to a University of Michigan survey (PDF) that found “76% [of respondents] would not respond to a library presence on Facebook or MySpace, either because existing methods of contact were sufficient or because these tools are social networks and not places for library invaders. ”

Bearing in mind that this is just one survey, and that what is true for these students may not be true for others, does this mean we should abandon social networking sites? Not in my opinion, nor in Sarah’s, it seems (she comments that the 17% who would welcome a library presence in these sites is actually quite a high number, and I think she’s right). However, it does indicate that we may have set our sights too high in terms of the benefits of using these sites, and that ‘going where our users are’ may not be sufficient to get users using our services, if our users don’t want us in that particular space. I also wonder if the 17% might mostly be students who would use the library anyway, whether they used the print collection or databases, websites, whatever.

Something Sarah touched on is that Facebook and Myspace are social networks. Well, we knew that, right? But what does that actually mean? I’m currently reading Meredith Farkas’ Social software in libraries. She points out that social networks are mainly used as a means for users to develop and display their identity*. Another obvious  use is as a way of staying in touch with friends. Users aren’t necessarily using these sites to solve problems or find information, they are using them for social purposes. It makes sense, therefore, that many users might not find library applications interesting or relevant.

And, of course, libraries are most emphatically not cool, which may just make some users reluctant to become our friends, or fans.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t be there. The cost of maintaining a social networking profile would seem to be fairly low, and if it results in even a small benefit, it’s probably worthwhile. My current thinking is that it might be most useful as a way for librarians (not libraries) to build relationships with students (and faculty?) in their subject areas. Most of the postgraduate class, and a number of undergraduates, know me by name or face. By “friending” them, I would give them an easy and unobtrusive way to keep updated with what was going on in the library (new databases, etc) – or even just to let them know that I was going to lunch (and save them a fruitless walk from the computer labs to the reference desk, looking for me).

Of course, that’s me speaking as a reference/liaison librarian, and I should probably remember that there’s more to an academic library than just what I do. But from my perspective, at the moment, that approach seems most useful.

On the same topic, Michael Stephens reports on a library who advertised on Facebook – $10 worth of advertising brought them 15 fans. That may not seem like a lot, but at less than a dollar per person, it does seem reasonably effective – and perhaps there will be a snowball effect, as those people’s friends will see that they have become fans, and might also be influenced to do so.

Finally, Sarah mentioned a while ago that teenagers are better able to manage their online privacy than we might expect (citing the Pew survey I mentioned a few posts ago).  I will put in a caveat here – possibly teenagers think they are managing their privacy correctly, but aren’t? Recently there was a thread on a bulletin board that I’m a member of, where some quite tech-savvy people (and me) realised that their Facebook privacy settings were completely wrong, and that instead of their profiles being restricted to friends only, they were open to anyone in their networks. I wonder if the Pew teens are really protecting their privacy as well as they think they are?**

*Quoting from memory, I may have to edit this later….
** Of course, maybe it’s just old people like me who don’t know how to work the FB privacy controls….

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About simonchamberlain

New Zealand librarian and music fan, living in London.
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