One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Two reasons Facebook is killing information retrieval and collaboration

There are two problems plaguing Facebook and having a grossly detrimental effect on information retrieval and collaboration.  If you see Facebook as more than a lolspeak haven, and use it to communicate information to your friends, like I do, you may be seeing the same problems.

Facebook is killing information retrieval

The first problem is that, like many of my online friends, the majority of my interaction with Facebook is through status updates and sharing links to interesting stories.  Some of these links are particularly compelling or memorable for me: months later, I wish to retrieve these links, and revisit the site.  Perhaps there was an interesting article that was germain to my current research, or that helped articulate a point.

Unfortunately, link retrieval on Facebook goes like this:
  1. Click on my name to go to my profile and wall.
  2. Search the page in my web browser for the text I think I put in the link text.
  3. Finding nothing, scroll to the bottom and choose "Older posts."
  4. Wait.
  5. Repeat steps 2--4 until either I find the link, or I get bored.
This problem is compounded if the information I wish to retrieve is embedded as a reply to someone else's status update or link.  These events are archived on Facebook, and displayed back to me, as "Dynamic Doula commented on So-and-So's status" or "wrote on So-and-So's wall."  If I am unsure where the embedded information is, on whose wall I wrote, or on whose link I commented, I have to traverse all of these links.  Click, read, realize it is not the correct one, go back, and start again on step 2, because all of the "Older posts" have been re-minimized and only the newest posts are displayed.

Information retrieval on Facebook is cumbersome.  I wish there were a way I could easily and quickly search all of the things I have ever written, both on my wall and on others' walls, and in discussion groups within individual applications.  How many times have I linked, for example, a story about a birth?  Where are all of my links to blog posts?  Where is that amazing conversation we had about children in academia?  These things are nearly impossible to find, as they have disappeared into the informational Facebook abyss.

Facebook is killing collaboration

The second problem with Facebook (or at least, the second problem that I address here) is a direct fallout from the information retrieval problem.  Say I share a link to a blog post, such as this one.  Those in my friends list are shown this link, and can "like" it, comment on it, or share it with their friends. Conversations, including the "like" action and actual comments, about the post happen directly below my link, as replies.  However, readers of my blog that are not friends with me on Facebook are thus prevented from contributing to the conversation.  Moreover, if a friend shares my story on her feed, there is a possibility of further conversation on that node, totally disconnected from the conversation on my node.  To keep track, I should either "like" or comment below any shared articles to be notified of replies.  There is no way to consolidate the conversations.

The real problem is that Facebook is a closed system.  That is, only members of Facebook can contribute to its content.  I am generalizing here, and not even touching ads and the recent privacy concerns and the way that, magically, other sites suddenly know a lot about my friends and their interests.  As it's a closed system, it is difficult if not impossible to selectively make public certain content without compromising privacy.  In particular, I cannot tell the world about what my Facebook friends think about my work, because their comments are published on Facebook.  And their friends cannot tell me what they think of my work, because they lack the permissions to post on my wall.  Oops!  It is a privacy catch-22.

What Facebook should do

The solution to these two problems can take many different turns.

First, Facebook should provide a search function and an easier way to access one's own content.  Period.

Second, Facebook and Blogger (or other blogging tools) can add a way to publish comments from Facebook to Blogger and vice-versa.  That is, if someone comments on a link to this article on Facebook, there should be an option for anonymization (if necessary) and publishing to Blogger.  That way these comments can reach more of the general reader population.

What I should do

I do not really know how to proceed.  I would love to be able to post here on my blog some of the lovely feedback and serious discussions I have had over Facebook, but one, I would need to get permission or properly anonymize each comment; two, I would need to enter each one by hand as a comment (which would be both tedious and, well, lame); and three, I would need to be able to find them, which brings me back to the first problem above.

Instead, I will solicit advice here, and silently stew in my progressively-escalating annoyance with Facebook's downright unusable information retrieval system and lack of cross-system collaboration support.


  1. I absolutely agree with you on the search function thing. It drives me insane scrolling back through pages of my daily random twaddle to find that one cool link. I suppose a work around would be to cut and paste all interesting links into a... separate document for future browsing. However that presumes you can immediately tell it will be interesting in the future.

    I don't really have issues with the collaboration bit, but to help you out I'll post my comment on both FB and your blog. Let's start a double-posting trend! :)

  2. (1) Facebook is designed for vetted personal friends and family _only_. To add other people to your network is to break the intention of the site (and thereby open yourself to privacy issues).

    (2) A personal FaceBook account/profile and a professional blog should be no closer tied than a hyperlink.

    3rd party export of FB accounts to blogs that don't support FB accounts is goofy (for the reasons you've stated and for future maintenance/privacy reasons also). If you really need FB-only accounts, you can use FB to host comments on your blog pages, although that defeats most of the purpose of hosting a blog outside of FaceBook.

    (3) Some FB features (like "the wall") are ephemeral. The features are architect-ed to display chronologically relevant content and force you to "page" back in (reverse) chronological order. FB stores data this way... not indexed like an RDBMS (so it would be technically very expensive to search ephemeral features).

    That said, you may try to search for your old data by downloading all of your Facebook data then searching that ZIP file.
    Try starting here:

  3. I downloaded my FB profile and found that my shared links were there, schluped into the "Wall" file. None of my posts to other walls were there, though, which cuts out half of my links.

    If downloading your profile meant downloading your interactions, that would be a good step towards resolving this search problem. It's sometimes a shame search and privacy butt heads with such great force.

  4. You're onto a really interesting trend about how we use the internet. When I discuss one of your posts, I'd rather do it with my friends and their friends than with your broader audience.

    Your complaint about information retrieval is actually not as bad as you think. Check out

    About consolidating the conversations: It's easier on blogging platforms that have good facebook connect implementations. Blogger is perhaps the worst. Maybe try Wordpress? Even better, create a facebook account for the blog, use the lowest possible privacy settings, and then post your posts as notes. Facebook *is* a better blogging platform than Blogger.

    If you're brave, you could even start a Facebook Group instead, which is more of a group blogging environment for you and your fans.


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