My 20 page manifesto on Facebook and social capital, written in the winter of 07/08 for a writing class…

Franklin’s Facebook

How a Cultural Marvel Became America’s First Social Library

  1. Abstract
  2. The Premise
  3. The Result
  4. Social Capital and its Downfall
  5. Information Technology
  6. The Internet and Early Online Communities
  7. The Offline Shift
  8. Social Library
  9. Conclusions
  10. Works Cited

Abstract: As the sixth most popular website in the world, Facebook has become both a cultural phenomenon and a unique academic research tool. Its phenomenon stems from its ability to draw millions of users who post pictures and personal data daily, whereas researchers look to its ability to mine this social data easily and effectively. In order to understand how Facebook is changing the social networks and lives of its 63 million active users, I have analyzed the ways in which Facebook has become an efficient, productive, and informative social library. This library, I argue, is a necessary resource after a decades long decline in social capital – the measurement of society’s ability to produce effective networks and supportive relationships. After a look at the many attempts to produce an effective online social environment, I argue that Facebook’s library model succeeds because it incorporates the structure of traditional libraries as information and learning centers.

The Premise

It had been a month since the founding of one of the biggest cultural phenomena of our time. But Sorin Matei could hardly have been aware of it at the moment. While the cool winds of March found the Purdue University professor busy researching and writing papers, a soon to be college drop-out had only just begun to change the world. However, our world and our culture are nothing if not academic research journal articles waiting to happen. Therefore, while the nineteen-year-old sophomore at Harvard University was busy making plans to take a casual trip to Palo Alto for the summer of 2004, Matei was fresh off the press with a wordy new article for the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media entitled, The Impact of state-level social capital on the emergence of virtual communities. His essay embraced a brave new vision of online communities in which “the relationship between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ spaces” and the “cumbersome distinctions between online and offline social universes” would finally come together to be realized as “two facets… of the same… basic datum of human life” (3).

Meanwhile, even without knowledge of the aforementioned article, a young adult was producing some tangible results from this philosophical postulate. After only three semesters at Harvard, the boy-who-would-be-king, Mark Zuckerberg, was pioneering a new way of looking at social networking. In fact, for his new social networking website, “The Facebook”, he preferred to describe it as a “social utility” site instead of the traditional “social networking” moniker (Locke, Laura, 2007, pg. 1). This was because his focus and sights were set on a new, slightly different vision of what virtual spaces could be. His goal for what would later be known as simply, “Facebook,” was to “just make it really efficient for people to communicate, get information and share information” (Locke, Laura, 2007, pg. 1). This goal meant replacing the architecture of online social spaces from one in which people use the interface to make new online acquaintances with one in which users utilize the interface to connect with people already in their network of friends (Lampe, et. al, 2006).

The Result

This shift in perspectives replaced the once common goal of online communities as network-building or network-expanding tools, into a more refined goal of network-strengthening or network-enhancing tools. While seemingly a subtle shift, it generated a new way of looking at a site that could finally be called social utility. This utility partially stems from Facebook’s foundation in the offline world. However, while past discussions have relied almost exclusively on this foundation as an explanation for its social utility, I believe a new look at Facebook’s underlying architecture can lead to a more successful interpretation of Facebook’s social boons.

In the following analysis based on research and a first-hand look at Facebook’s successes and failures, I have found this underlying architecture to effectively resemble a library of social information. By housing bookcases stacked with data, discussion rooms echoing with conversation, and bulletin boards covered in community events, Facebook has become a successful resource for both those lacking in social satisfaction (Ellison et. al., 2006) as well as those looking to enhance the binding of their social spheres (Ellison et. al., 2007). However, this library of progress is not just a rhetorical haven of fancy metaphors. It succeeds at filling a void left by decades of decline in community involvement. This void is best filled with the library model because it is – as a 2003 History Magazine article claims – an environment “as old as civilization itself” (Krasner-Khait, Barbara, pg. 1). In addition, libraries have become not only a place of scholarship but also a “learning commons” in which people can meet and organize activities to advance their knowledge of the world (Bennet, Scott, pg. 38). While traditional libraries have succeeded in the teaching and dispersing of information on how our world works, Facebook provides a necessary second library in which the actions and organization of society, communities, and relationships can be monitored, mastered, and manifested into a positive force for social change and personal well being.

Social Capital and its Downfall

For the last ten years, most discussions of social networks or community relations begin to discuss two defining papers at about this point in their essays: James Coleman’s Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. This is appropriate here, because in order to understand any system that has the potential to bring about positive social change, we must first understand what signals a positive shift in our society and then recognize why such a tool is essential at this point in history. Thus, in these two essays, we are given a glimpse into an idea that makes our communities effective and constructive as well as a look at the recent decades-long decline in social life. Coleman calls the constructive community idea “social capital” and considers it to be the cause of “productive activity” (Coleman). Putnam further attributes social capital to higher “civic engagement”, “better schools”, and “lower crime” (Putnam). However, social capital is as much an effect as it is a cause and its development can therefore be attributed to a number of positive social interactions.

The first of these interactions is a relatively close-knit community. Coleman explains that when there is “closure of the social structure” (13), a “trustworthy” community follows (14). In other words, when members of a community speak on a regular basis, those members will be less likely to cheat or act contrary to societal norms because gossip creates a “collective sanction” (13). An economic example of this cause-effect relationship comes from the New York diamond market where merchants allow each other to inspect diamonds in private without fear that their diamonds will be substituted for a “paste replica” (5). This trust stems from the closed Brooklyn community that the merchants all come from and it provides a much more efficient, much less “cumbersome” market to exist (5-6). A social example can be found in secure communities where parents trust that their “unattended children” will be “looked after” by other parents in the vicinity at a park or store; whereas in a more dispersed community, such as can be found in a metropolitan neighborhood, there is a lack of social capital that means less trust and “freedom” for parents (7). In addition, Duncan Watts, in an article on network dynamics finds that not only do trust and cooperation “survive longer” in “clustered” (read: close-knit) networks (31), but also that these networks or communities allow for “rapid dissemination of information” (32) and for the “small-world phenomenon” (16) to take place: where there are only a few degrees of separation between seemingly distant, unrelated persons. Therefore, well-connected communities create multiple prosperous effects in social capital.

Scholars label this kind of interaction “bonding social capital,” or simply “strong ties” (Ellison, et. al., 2006, pg; 8, Kraut, et. al., 1998; Matei, Sorin, 2004) because of the ability for closed networks, such as family or church groups, to bond over emotional or stability issues (Ellison, et. al., 2006, pg. 8). In Putnam’s essay on our declining social prosperity, he argues that one reason our social capital has decreased is because of a decline in organizations that provide these strong ties. He explains that while many voluntary organizations had increased members between 1966 and 1992, it was mostly in “tertiary associations,” or organizations like the AARP where no actual community involvement or togetherness takes place (72). He also deduces that an increase in social capital can be attributed to “secondary associations” like the PTA in which mutual trust and group organization occur. He concludes that this secondary/tertiary organizational switch, which meant a switch from close-knit to spread-thin communities, could be profoundly associated with “America’s Declining Social Capital.”

A second interaction that is integral in creating social capital is the ability for information to travel between close-knit communities; from where it is considered common to where it can be received as novel. Watts explains that if networks are clustered but only rarely include this feature, they represent what he calls a “caveman graph” (8). While his explanation looks at the scenario as a mathematical process, the implication is that since cavemen mostly lived in small tribes and had few opportunities to converse with other tribes, they were unable to benefit from the information that other tribes may have recognized. Therefore, in order for society to excel and advance, ideas must be allowed to freely flow among different groups or cliques.

In a more recent discussion of social capital, Paul Resnick explains that, “if people only share information with others who are like-minded” they “form cliques” and “thus destroy… social capital” (16). These acknowledgements have led to the idea of “bridging social capital” (Ellison, et. al., 2006, pg. 8) or “weak ties” (10). In contrast to bonding social capital which describes strong emotional bonds, bridging social capital defines “loose connections between individuals who may provide useful information or new perspectives for one another” (Ellison, et. al., 2006, pg. 8). These loose connections allow for social capital because of their ability to enhance members’ feelings of belonging through “‘broader identities and generalized reciprocity’” (Ellison, et. al. 17, quoting Williams, D., 2006). Therefore, with the decline of social capital during the thirty year stretch noted by Putnam, decreased “reciprocity” (Putnam, pg. 67) led to decreased “social trust” (73) which inevitably resulted in a decline of “neighborliness” (73), “trust [in] the government” (68), and “civic engagement” (65). This snowball effect of broken connections creating broken trust which in turn creates a broken society has led to many attempted solutions such as support groups; however, most of these solutions “merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others” (Putnam, 72). What people need, is a way to easily make connections, strengthen their strong ties, and efficiently maintain social bridges. While few innovative solutions surfaced during Putnam’s study, the nineties1 brought an innovative new technology called the personal computer which created an interface for social capital to prosper – though not without a few kinks along the way.

Information Technology

A Passport to Pain, Paranoia, yet Somehow, Prosperity

The first significant academic discussion of computers’ effects on society was entitled The Productivity Paradox of Information Technology and was written in 1993. In it, Erik Brynjolfsson attempted to sort out why “America’s productivity shortfall” seemed to be “concentrated in” the markets which were “most heavily endowed with high-tech capital” (68). What he found was that like technologies before it2 and those yet to come3, the skeptics who had been arguing that Information Technology (IT) was useless and hurting the industry, were not that well informed. Brynjolfsson noted that while early benefits of IT seemed insignificant, the investment in IT nevertheless “‘positioned the industry for greater growth in the future’” (71, quoting Gottlieb and Denny). In addition, many of the increases in productivity (such as “increased quality, variety, customer service, speed and responsiveness”) were “poorly accounted for in productivity statistics” (74). He also concluded that much of the delay in positive results was due to the fact that “rapidly evolving technology” left “little time for time-tested principles to diffuse before being supplanted” (75).

The idea that time-tested principles must be overhauled when introducing new technology was successfully demonstrated in a case study at World Bank described in a 1996 paper by Tora Bikson and JD Eveland. Bikson and Eveland found that in order to make sure that World Bank’s new technology was successfully implemented, the company executed “continuous implementation through interaction between the tools and the social arrangements” (429). Simply put, high-tech tools can only be successfully implemented if people know how to use and – more importantly – utilize them. At World Bank, they brought together both the organizational behavior department and the information technology department for the first time ever, in an attempt to understand how new technology could be most effectively utilized. Once implemented, the high-tech gadgets they introduced effectually increased “the generation of ideas, alternatives, plans, explanations, solutions, and other creative intellectual inputs” (433). However, the technology was only a small part of the prosperous outcome. As Bikson and Eveland argue, “Organizations exist to pursue tasks, not to use technology. Successful technologies are usually those that can achieve reciprocal adaptation with the social organizations” (436). Therefore, it was World Bank’s collaborative approach that prompted the positive results.

This case study can now be seen as a perfect beginning to an understanding of how any technology can positively alter our social structure. As Matei explained, technology is not a separate environment in which to work toward productivity. Instead, it can be thought of as a tool to be utilized for different purposes in any environment of our lives. Thus, an important view by Bikson and Eveland of technology as a tool must be addressed:

Tool inventors play an essential and irreplaceable function. However, tool reinventors are the ones who define what the tools do in practice and the effects that they have in context. Without invention, there are no tools. Without reinvention, there are no uses. (Bikson and Eveland, pg. 437)

As the management at World Bank realized, consumers are as important to the success of implemented technology as the technology itself. This understanding established a concrete way in which to incorporate technology into our everyday lives. In fact, in 1998 Brynjolfsson went Beyond the Productivity Paradox in order to look at how IT had evolved in the industry. He found that there was “a consistent finding that IT has a positive and significant impact… contradicting claims of a ‘productivity paradox’” (1998, pg. 5). In addition, he concludes that “firms can actually be worse off if they invest in computers without the new work systems;” proving once more that technology is only as good as the organization behind its implementation. However, with the arrival of the Internet, new challenges and new skeptics meant it would be almost a decade for the lessons of World Bank to finally make their way into the World Wide Web.

The Internet and Early Online Communities

To many at the advent of the Internet, “online community” was an oxymoron. How can you have a community, they asked, whose very definition implies living in the same area, actualized in a cyber-world where nothing is tangible and everything is questionable? In fact, early on, many scholars agreed that the Internet was going to disengage us socially, increase loneliness and life stressors, and replace our strong ties with less socially important weak ties (Kraut et. al., 1998). At the onset of the Internet, as at the onset of most other technologies, this may have been a correct assumption; however, as with those other technologies its best applications were yet to be discovered. As Kraut et. al. admit in their article Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being their trial study was almost over before “group-orient software, like America Online’s Instant Messenger” became available (1029). Therefore their negative outlook was based on the fact that systems for finding people or supporting strong ties were extremely underdeveloped. Their recommendations for the future included “more intense development and deployment of services that support preexisting communities and strong relationships” (1030). Accordingly, after the Internet had a few years to develop, and the first dot-com bubble was busy popping, Kraut et. al. came out with a follow up essay which demonstrated that the negative social effects associated with their earlier study had “dissipated over” time and that newer research established “positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being” (2001, pg. 1). In another article written in the same year, it was found that Internet groups “might have sparked a renewal of civic spirit in the United States” and that the Internet had the potential “to expand users’ social worlds to faraway people and simultaneously to bind them more deeply to the place where they live” (Horrigan, pg. 2). While the positive social effects remained evident in multiple scenarios online, this last “glocalization” (Horrigan, pg. 2) potential was years away from being fulfilled.

One example of a positive social experience online originated in anonymous “medical support communities” (Lampe et. al.,167). Unlike Putnam’s support groups which lack reciprocal social interaction, Lampe et. al. note that online support groups sustain “close, affective relationships” (Lampe et. al.,167) through the trust and safety of anonymous environments. Nevertheless, as the Web continued to evolve, this anonymous atmosphere proved to be more of a scourge than an advantage in the quest for a social capital building online community. Bargh and McKenna note that communication over the Internet is usually poor because of the “depersonalizing” effect in which people conform to “local group norms” (579). However, this “impoverished communications experience” (578, paraphrasing Sproull and Kiesler) decreases when offline ties are associated with the communication. In fact, Bargh and McKenna demonstrate that “communicating with others over the Internet” can help “to maintain close ties with one’s family and friends” (582). In addition, they quote a national survey that “showed that the more time Internet users spent on-line, the more likely they were to belong to off-line religious, leisure, and community organizations” (584, results from Katz et. al., 2001). Finally, they note that “‘the longer people are on the Internet, the more likely they are to use the Internet to engage in social-capital-building activities’” (585, quoting Kavanaugh and Patterson). Clearly, the early observations of Internet communities and social life infer a domain where social capital can increase; while a perfect medium of communication had yet to be developed.

The Offline Shift

The Making of a Social Utility

In the past few years, after the bursting of the dot-com bubble, online communities have grown tremendously. In fact, while the first social networking site (SNS) was established in 1997 (Donath and boyd, pg. 1; Caslon Analytics pg. 1), SNSs have become so popular recently that four of the top ten most highly trafficked websites in the world are SNSs (Global Top 500). Early social networking websites were defined as websites which “help people make new connections” (Donath and boyd, 77). This definition encompassed a large range of websites at the time, from business-centered sites like LinkedIn to sites like Friendster, which had no clear goals outside of expanding a user’s network of connections. (Donath and boyd, pg. 80-81). While this model of social networking provided many social benefits such as the ability to increase and maintain weak ties through lower costs of communication (80), they ultimately failed at providing a lasting social capital solution. Donath and boyd argued in 2004 that while “social networking sites are booming” they follow a “fashion diffusion pattern” where “the early and once enthusiastic users of these sites are frequently quoted as saying that they are ‘over’, that once one has amassed a big collection of ‘friends’ there is really nothing to do on the sites, and that they have ceased using them” (81).

This failure of SNSs that focus on increasing connections, meant that a different model was needed in order to fill the void left by decades of social capital decline. In addition, this renewed model would need to incorporate the lessons learned in the past, such as those at World Bank that stated that successful technologies cannot be an end in themselves but rather that they should be tools used in a way to allow people to live more efficiently. Because social networking sites were failing when the online environment was the focus instead of the users’ actual lives, it may just be that the idea that “organizations exist to pursue tasks, not to use technology” (Bikson and Eveland, pg. 436) may apply to people’s social lives as well. This would mean that successful social networking sites would therefore be ones which “can achieve reciprocal adaptation with the social” lives of their users (Bikson and Eveland, pg. 436).

The most successful social networking site so far which is based around people’s offline communities is Facebook, which was founded in 2004. Facebook differentiates itself from the preceding social networking sites in two definitive ways. First, Facebook members join as a part of an offline “geographically bound community” (Ellison et. al., 2006, pg. 5) and are required to make profiles, which “provide accurate, current and complete information” (Facebook Terms of Use). In most communities or “networks” as Facebook calls them, “membership is restricted to those with a specific host institution email address” (Ellison et. al., 2006, pg. 5). This means that in addition to an assumed offline community connection by users, for the majority of users, this geographically bound community is literally forced upon them. Furthermore, a recent study by Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross provides substantial evidence to support the claim that profile information “is likely to be of good quality: complete and accurate” (Acquisti and Gross, pg. 49).

The second differentiation between Facebook and earlier social networking sites lies in the way its members utilize the site. While Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, wanted Facebook to simply be a site that made it “really efficient for people to communicate” (Locke, Laura, 2007, pg. 1), it is important to remember the lesson that the clients “are the ones who define what the tools do in practice and the effects that they have in context” (Bikson and Eveland, pg. 437). Fortunately, we have the ability to do just that as there have been a number of studies which have analyzed the behaviors of Facebook users. One article, entitled A Face(book) in the Crowd; Social Searching vs. Social Browsing, looks at users’ behavior based on surveys and notes that Facebook members “are primarily using Facebook to increase awareness of those in their offline community” instead of utilizing the site to “find people or groups with whom” they have never met. This data is confirmed by a 2007 study in which Lampe et. al. mine Facebook profiles and find that the most common information within profiles is details which “help support the maintenance of pre-existing social networks” (441). Therefore, it can be concluded that Facebook’s most substantial distinctions – that it is founded in an offline community and that people utilize the site in order to enhance their offline ties – are being employed by its members and not just being touted by its creators.

Facebook differentiated itself at a time when other social networking sites and models were failing; however, just because it has differences that follow with the social theories of the time, does not mean it will inevitably succeed. In fact, there are some who argue that these differences actually make it more likely that Facebook will decrease social capital. Michael Bugeja argues in Facing the Facebook: Unless we reassess our high-tech priorities, issues of student insensitivity, indiscretion, and fabrication will consume us that “Facebook ‘encouraged egocasting even though it claims to further ‘social networking’ and build communities’” (2, quoting Christine Rosen). This problem could be exacerbated by Facebook’s design because people are not just egocasting as an online persona or to mostly unknown people, but rather are projecting an egocentric image of themselves that they know offline peers will judge. In addition, Bugeja mentions that many judiciary committees and academic institutions have had to deal with students who post inappropriate content on their profiles (1). This problem stems from the fact that Facebook users trust the website’s security more than they do other SNSs (Acquisti and Gross, pg. 53) and expect that their peers are the main, if not only, audience to their profiles (Lampe et. al., 2006, pg. 168). While these concerns are valid, the problems they describe have not been documented as widespread within Facebook and while Facebook’s model may increase them compared to earlier social networking sites, they are no more likely to exist on Facebook than in the real world. As Carol Stuart explains in New Meaning to “friend”: More questions than answers, the “wrong” actions that students take on Facebook are “not different from what” they might do “in the hallway at school” (60). In addition, Facebook has numerous proven benefits in all types of social capital that occur frequently enough to decidedly diminish the aforementioned concerns.

These benefits are promoted most effusively by Mark Zuckerberg. He argues that “we’re not thinking about ourselves as a community — we’re not trying to build a community — we’re not trying to make new connections” and this allows him to assert that Facebook serves its members’ “real connections in the world” in a way that other social networking sites have not been capable of (Locke, Laura, 2007, pg. 1). So far, the evidence has resembled his assertions. Whether you look at Lampe et. al.’s evidence explaining that Facebook users accumulate “bridging” (2007, pg. 15) and “bonding” (2007, pg. 17) social capital with greater success than Internet users in general; Ellison et. al.’s evidence that “those reporting low satisfaction and low self esteem” who used Facebook most intensely gained social capital in a way that increased their sense of belonging (2006, pg. 23); or even Mary Lou Santovec’s evidence that use of Facebook by professors can enhance professor-student relations because of their ability to learn more about students’ emotional well being (2006, pg. 5); Facebook has indeed earned itself the label ‘social utility.’ This prosperous outcome can be partly attributed to the two aforementioned differentiations; however, a closer look at where Facebook succeeds and how it increases users’ social well being precipitates a fresh new perspective on the way that Facebook is used by its members.

Social Library

What’s in a NAME (Necessity, Ability, Maturation, Excellence)?

After a brief look into the history of the use and abuse of social capital, it is now clear that a necessity has arisen to bring back the ‘good old days’ of the 1950s and early 1960s when neighborliness and civic engagement were at an all-time high throughout the last fifty years. In addition, while recent innovations such as the Internet and social networking websites have shown potential for this resurgence, no application prior to Facebook stood out in the fight to save our relationships and community life. Facebook succeeds for the aforementioned reasons; however, a close look at why it has begun to prove itself the tool of resurgent social capital has yet to be explained. In order to understand why its model works so well, we can first analyze what exactly Facebook has been providing its users as well as how users have been utilizing what it provides.

At the most basic level, Facebook provides a trusted environment for people to find out more about the lives of the people in their social spheres. In addition, Facebook supplies many ways to converse with friends and acquaintances ranging from private email-like conversation to public discussion boards in social-advocacy groups. It connects and supports the social lives of people with a wide range of self-esteem and self-satisfaction levels and Facebook’s “open to all” (Ellison et. al., 2006, pg. 26) environment4 allows for more introverted users to use Facebook as a “surveillance” mechanism in which to “track the actions, beliefs and interests of the larger groups to which they belong” in order to “search for social cues that indicate group norms” (Lampe et. al., 2006, pg. 167).

There is another environment that has many of these same characteristics. It too provides a trusted environment for the pursuit of knowledge, even though its trusted information is instead concerned with the way our world works and the different tangible and intangible ideas that comprise everything around us. In addition, it supplies a domain for effective conversation and organization to take place in order to learn in a welcoming, open environment. It does not discriminate in sharing its information to anyone and it has resources for people with all ranges of familiarity to both its structure as well as the information it provides.

I am, of course, referring to a library, and just as some scholars have referred to libraries as “symbols for the life of the mind,” (Bennet, pg. vi, quoting Kathlin Smith) I believe Facebook holds the same status in the life of social action and emotional well being. In some respects, the similarity is uncanny: the evolution of the library progressed from private institutions, to public for those with “scholarly… qualifications,” to public information centers for all (Krasner-Khait, pg. 1-4). Facebook took this same evolution (private universities, to all universities, to everyone) and has, like libraries, become a “repository of knowledge” (Krasner-Khait, pg. 6). However, the similarities do not stop with the history and initial structure of the two information portals. In recent years, libraries have been shown to operate most effectively when they act not only as “service places where information is held” (Bennet, pg. 4) but also when they serve as “learning commons” where “collaborative learning” allows students to “turn information into knowledge and sometimes into wisdom” (Bennet, pg. 38). While this theory is relatively new, the idea goes back for centuries where the first public libraries existed as public “baths” where “men and women, rich and poor could take a bath, meet with friends, play ball – and read a book” (Krasner-Khait, 4). Facebook also does not simply constitute a repository of social information. It provides many collaborative tools for members to utilize its data in order to further their social capital and emotional well-being.

In addition to this understanding of Facebook’s ability to further social capital as a social library, it is necessary to analyze the evidence that continues to allow Facebook to mature as a social utility. Because Facebook was created as a tool with community elements instead of a community with useful elements it has many applications embedded in its structure to allow for this maturation. At the most fundamental level, each Facebook member posts a profile about their offline self that has been shown to be mostly complete and accurate through a comparison between opinion surveys and undisclosed scans of participants’ profiles (Acquisti and Gross). In addition, Facebook members trust the information and website and therefore achieve higher than normal levels of effective communication in comparison to other websites (Bargh and McKenna, pg. 585). Finally, Facebook has many services for creating community discussion and organizing social lives. With these three aspects working together, Facebook allows members on campuses or within neighborhoods or communities to organize their social lives in ways resembling “group study spaces” in libraries (Bennet, pg. 75, paraphrasing Bruffee). A tangible example is the current protest going on at Washington University in St. Louis where, through Facebook, students have organized over 150 people to demonstrate at a paid speaking engagement by Alberto Gonzales (Protest Alberto Gonzales Speaking At WUSTL and Getting $30K for It).

The seemingly oxymoronic closed yet open nature of the Facebook community has created some other interesting findings. Because Facebook represents a closed offline community, students were recently able to start a discussion among themselves about recalling the Student Union president at Washington University for the decision to invite Gonzales. However, in the same way that a local politician could walk into a library discussion room for a community event, the Student Union president entered the Facebook discussion board and wrote “I don’t think I’m completely for the recall, haha.” and went on to defend his decision (Section 3: Recall).

With all of the ways that Facebook works as a social library, there is one conspicuous exception: Facebook has no librarians. Librarians serve library patrons by assisting them in finding information as well as engaging them in conversation about the material; as Scott Bennet explains in Libraries Designed For Learning, the “‘new paradigm for librarianship’ is ‘conversation’” (74, quoting Joan Bechtal). Therefore, librarians serve as ‘tool reinventors’ in that they have control over the way the library runs and have the ability to add utility in constructive ways that may not have existed when their respective libraries were first built. Because Facebook lacks this resource – a manager or teacher to educate people in the most productive ways to utilize Facebook – it is more easily prone to the problems of early social networking sites in which users cannot seem to find useful applications for the website. As the World Bank case study demonstrated, new technology works most successfully when there is a continuously guiding hand to teach people how to effectively put it to use. Hence, while Facebook resembles a social library, and while it has many benefits of the comparison, its largest flaw is simply that it needs to more closely resemble the structure of a library.

This deficiency could be fixed within universities (where most Facebook members reside) by implementing programs for incoming Freshman to make them more ready to utilize Facebook in a productive way throughout college. This has in fact been undertaken by Rollins college as reported in the magazine “Recruiting and Retention in Higher Education.” Administration at the school noticed the “reality” that Facebook was already being used by most students on a daily basis and therefore concluded that Facebook was the “best system” they could use for informing students about campus activities (Santovec, pg. 1). However, because Facebook has now grown out of solely a college base, other solutions for teaching successful Facebook use should be explored and implemented. Communities could have informational sessions or Facebook could even set up monitored discussion boards for people to discuss the best ways of utilizing and informing people of Facebook’s utility. If these actions are undertaken, they will set up Facebook to triumphantly allow America to regain the social capital that has been on a steady decline in recent decades. This will finally allow Facebook’s social utility to reach excellence and earn its name as a social library.


This study provides an overview of the cultural environment that shaped Facebook’s introduction into the world of social networking websites. Through a discussion of other researchers’ analyses, a close look at the culture surrounding Facebook’s creator and members, as well as a study on some first-hand Facebook examples, I have argued that Facebook effectively resembles a social library. This library, it has been seen, is a necessary environment in which users can learn, share, and organize the information that bounds their lives together. While Facebook’s lack of tangible managers or librarians hinders its use as a social capital building tool in some ways, there are a number of ways these resources could be implemented in order to make Facebook truly fulfill the social facets of the basic datum of human life.

  • 1 While personal computers have been around since the 1970s, personal computers did not surge toward ubiquity until the nineties.
  • 2 When the telephone was introduced, “concerns continued to be raised that [it] would harm the family, hurt relationships, and isolate people” (Bargh et. al., pg. 576). When the radio was introduced British customs officials smashed it for fear “that it would inspire violence and revolution’” (Bargh et. al., pg. 576, quoting Debora Spar).
  • 3 Kraut et. al. wrote in 1998 that the Internet causes greater stress and an increase in depression (1027) only to retract those findings six years later in an article entitled “Internet Paradox Revisited.”
  • 4 While it began as a utility of Ivy League schools, Facebook has been made open to all Internet users since September 11, 2006.


Works Cited

  1. Acquisti, Alessandro, and Ralph Gross. Imagined Communities: Awareness, Information
    Sharing, and Privacy on the Facebook. Privacy Enhancing Technologies 4258 (2006): 36-58.
  2. Axelrod, Robert. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, ISBN
  3. Bargh & McKenna. The Internet and Social Life. Annual Psychology Review, Feb.
  4. Bennett, Scott. Libraries Designed for Learning. Council on Library and Information
    Resources. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources,
  5. Bikson, Tora K., and J. D. Eveland. Groupware Implementation: Reinvention in the
    Sociotechnical Frame. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (1996): 428-437.
  6. Brynjolfsson, Erik. Beyond the productivity paradox. Communications of the ACM, Aug
    1998, Vol. 41, Issue 8, p49, 7p.
  7. Brynjolfsson, Erik. The productivity paradox of information technology.
    Communications of the ACM, 1993, Vol. 36, Issue 12, p66, 12p.
  8. Bugeja, Michael J. “Facing the Facebook.” Chronicle Careers. 23 Jan. 2006. 15 Dec. 2007 <http://chronicle.com/jobs/2006/01/2006012301c.htm>.
  9. Coleman, James. Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. The American
    Journal of Sociology, Vol. 94, Supplement: Organizations and Institutions:
    Sociological and Economic Approaches to the Analysis of Social Structure (1988), pp. S95-S120.
  10. Donath, J. and Danah Boyd. Public displays of connection. BT Technology Journal 22
    (October 2004): 71-82.
  11. Ellison, N., Lampe, C. and Steinfield, C., Spatially Bounded Online Social Networks and
    Social Capital: The Role of Facebook. in International Communications Association, (Dresden, 2006).
  12. Ellison, N. Steinfield, C. & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook ‘friends’:
    Exploring the relationship between college students’ use of online social networks and social capital. In Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 (3).
  13. “Global Top 500.” Alexa – the Web Information Company. 15 Jan. 2008. 15 Jan. 2008
  14. Horrigan, J. B., Rainie, L., & Fox, S. Online communities: Networks that nurture long-
    distance relationships and local ties. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2001.
  15. Kittinger, Robert. Web 2.0: Social Behavior of Internet Users. (2006). <http://www.auburnmedia.com/pdf/kittinger_web_2.0.pdf>
  16. Krasner-Khait, Barbara. “Survivor: the History of the Library.” History Magazine. Oct.-
    Nov. 2001. History Magazine. 15 Jan. 2007 <http://www.history-magazine.com/libraries.html>.
  17. Kraut, Robert, Michael Patterson, Vicki Lundmark, Sara Kiesler, Tridas Mukopadhyay,
    and William Scherlis. Internet Paradox: a Social Technology That Reduces
    Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being? American Psychologist 53 (1998).
  18. Kraut, Robert, Sara Kiesler, Bonka Boneva, Jonathon Cummings, Vicki Helgeson, and
    Anne Crawford. “Internet Paradox Revisited.” Journal of Social Issues (2001).
  19. Liu, Hugo, and Pattie Maes. InterestMap: Harvesting Social Network Profiles for
    Recommendations. Beyond Personalization, 9 Jan. 2005, University of Minnesota. 2005.
  20. Lampe, C., Ellison, N. and Steinfield, C., A Face(book) in the Crowd: Social Searching
    vs. Social Browsing. in ACM Special Interest Group on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, (Banff, Canada, 2006), ACM Press.
  21. Lampe, C., Ellison, N. and Steinfield, C., A Familiar Face(book): Profile Elements as
    Signals in an Online Social Network. in Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, (San Jose, CA, 2007), ACM Press.
  22. Locke, Laura. “The Future of Facebook.” Time 17 July 2007.
  23. McGirt, Ellen. “Hacker. Dropout. CEO.” Fast Company May 2007. 15 Dec. 2007
  24. Matei, Sorin (2004) The Impact of State-level Social Capital on the Emergence of Virtual
    Communities. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 48:1, 23-40
  25. “Media, Business, and Communications Timeline: 1996 to 2000.” Caslon Analytics. Dec.
    2003. 15 Dec. 2007 <http://www.caslon.com.au/timeline14.htm>.
  26. Merton R K. Social theory and social structure. New York: Free Press, 1949. 423 p.
    [Columbia University, New York, NY].
  27. Pulido, Jose. “Protest Alberto Gonzales Speaking At WUSTL and Getting $30K for It.”
    Facebook. 15 Dec. 2007 <http://wustl.facebook.com/group.php?gid=16636015390>.
  28. Pulido, Jose. “Section 3: Recall.” Protest Alberto Gonzales Speaking At WUSTL and
    Getting $30K for It. 6 Dec. 2007. 15 Dec. 2007
  29. Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Journal of
    Democracy – Volume 6, Number 1, January 1995.
  30. Resnick, Paul. Beyond Bowling Together: SocioTechnical Capital. Ed. John M.
    Carroll. HCI in the New Millenium (2002): 247-272.
  31. Santovec, Mary L. “Using Online Networking to Engage and Retain Students.”
    Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education Mar. 2006: 1-5. Ebsco Host.
    Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis. 15 Dec. 2007.
  32. Stuart, Carol. (2007) New meaning to “friend”: More questions than answers. RCYCP
    Vol. 20 No.2. p 4.
  33. “Terms of Use.” Facebook. 15 Nov. 2007. 15 Dec. 2007 <http://www.facebook.com/terms.php>.
  34. Watts, Duncan J., Networks, Dynamics, and the Small-World Phenomenon. The
    American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Sep., 1999), pp. 493-527.