What is Facebook?
Facebook, like most social networking sites, allows users to create online profiles (including photos, information about themselves, etc.) and then connect to other people with similar interests and experiences. Mark Zuckerberg developed Facebook in 2004, while he was a student at Harvard. He saw Facebook as a way for students to connect with each other. In 2006, he decided to open up registration so that anyone could join. Facebook is now the second-most popular social networking site (after MySpace ) in the U.S., with over 28 million monthly visitors, and its popularity is growing. The site’s monthly traffic has increased 77% since last year.
How is Facebook similar to (and different from) other social networking sites?
Most often, people compare Facebook to MySpace. On both sites, users can create profiles, upload photos, share information, and send messages. There are several features that set Facebook apart, however. One is that Facebook limits how people can customize and change the appearance of their profiles. This means that Facebook profiles are more standardized, but may lack the personalization offered by other sites.
Facebook also has many other features (with more being added), such as:
- News Feeds are updates about your friends’ activities on Facebook. Whenever someone posts a photo, makes a new Facebook friend, or uploads a like, all their friends receive that information on their news feed. For example, when AIDS.gov uploads a new podcast to our Facebook page, all our friends are notified with a link to our Facebook profile.
- Status updates are used so people can let their friends know what they are thinking, doing, or feeling. Like any other activity, it is automatically updated in friends’ news feeds. Shaun keeps his Facebook friends engaged by changing his status daily. When we looked at his status, it read, “Wants to remind everyone that you can get tested Tuesday from 3:30-7:30pm Tuesday and 10am-2pm on Wednesday! By appt Monday/Thursday. Get tested! Know your status!”
- Groups are a key organizing tool for organizations, shared interest groups, grass-roots campaigns, and causes. Groups can be completely private: they do not appear in searches, their news feeds are not shared with non-members, and their pages cannot be seen by anyone not explicitly invited to the group. Messaging on Facebook is quite sophisticated, and groups use it as an organizing tool and as an alternative to mass-mailings. We recently found over 500 AIDS-related groups, many of which are for special events and fundraising walks.
- Applications are mini-programs that people can use on their Facebook profiles. Since May 2007, when Facebook announced “Facebook Platform,” which allows developers to create applications for Facebook, over 18,000 have been built, and 140 new applications are added each day . Several applications are HIV/AIDS-specific, such as an application that allows you to add a red ribbon to your profile, or (Product) RED’s “Card for Africa” to raise awareness about AIDS in Africa. It doesn’t end there, however. Earlier this year, Facebook announced that, in addition to being able to create an application specifically for Facebook profiles, the applications can now be easily embedded into other websites. Dmitriy told us, “What makes Facebook different is the ability to create your own applications that members can install on their profiles and spread to their friends. MySpace is catching up, though.”
- Causes were developed by Project Agape to allow networks of firiends to promote fundraising campaigns for a particular cause. You can raise awareness while raising money!
- Pages are different from individual profiles. Businesses or organizations can create Facebook pages, and individuals can express support for the work an organization does by adding themselves as a “fan” of that page. Pages are great for nonprofit organizations–you can send regular updates to your fans, and–just like Facebook individual profile pages–you can add applications and engage users with blogs, videos, reviews, events, messages, and more.
Facebook and HIV/AIDS
When we asked Shaun if he thought AIDS service organization should use Facebook, he told us, “Where are young people going to get your information if you’re not on Facebook or MySpace?” He continued, “We needed a way to get events, awareness, and testing hours to that population. What better way to do that than online outreach?!”
At AIDS.gov, our Facebook page helps us connect with HIV/AIDS service providers and their programs. We also use Facebook to highlight HIV/AIDS Awareness Days and our AIDS.gov program, including this blog. Our goal is to expand our community and share information about Federal HIV/AIDS resources. We are just beginning to learn if Facebook and other social network sites can help us meet those goals.
Should you be on Facebook? That depends on your own organization’s goals and resources. Setting up a profile, page, or group doesn’t require any technical expertise. While there are many benefits–like reaching a broader audience online–as with any social media efforts, it takes time and resources to really engage your audiences. You have to be prepared and able to update your profile often.
A Note of Caution
As we mentioned last week, it is important to remember that social network sites are public. While Facebook has different privacy settings, remember to be mindful about the information you post to your profile. [added 3.18.08: Facebook just introduced privacy updates that will provide users with more control over the information they choose to share].
To learn more about getting started on Facebook, here are some resources:
- Facebook’s very own help pages provide a lot of information about basic features.
- TechSoup has several good articles about getting involved on Facebook, such as A Beginner’s Guide to Facebook and Promote Your Cause on Facebook in Six Easy Steps
Next week we’ll report back from the Nonprofit and Technology Conference in New Orleans, LA. Then we’ll continue our social networking series with a focus on smaller, niche social networking sites.