I just read a very interesting article in the Globe and Mail A regulatory nightmare: Facebook and its goal of a less private Web The article overviews the use of web analytics to track and then recommend/target users, products and services. At Athabasca University we have been building our “partially closed” -(restricted membership but not necessary restricted reading to members of the Athabasca community) . Our social networking system is based on the ELGG platform and hosted on our machines. We choose this route rather than Facebook for two primary reasons – enhanced privacy controls for indiviudals and the control that we (not a commercial company) have on the data generated.
It serves reminding that the customer of Facebook and other commercial networking sites, is NOT the user. Rather, their customers are those who pay for ads, information about users or both. Athabasca has participated (both officially and unofficially) in a number of groups on Facebook and students, of course, start their own groups focused on our courses or programs. But you can imagine a private university or other company paying for the contacts, friends lists, behaviours and other data generated by the members of these groups and targetting (or at least learning about) students enrolled at Athabasca.
I am a huge supporter of the value add to students (and lifelong learners) of social networks and especially those studying at a distance (see my 2005 article Distance learning: Social software’s Killer app?), but I am very glad that we are not gathering information for Facebook or other commercial sites.
We also experience the challenge of attracting students (and our staff) away from Facebook and I know of at least one University that had their social network become a ghost town when Facebook opened its very compelling doors. But I continue to think that the University tradition of offering a safe space for study and exploration can and should be maintained in our networked era.
So, to answer my title question, Facebook MAY not be evil, but they are commercial company with interests, values, mission and vision that is far from that maintained by a public university like Athabasca.