KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Why Facebook is (probably) not the answer for your community of practice

with 10 comments

I was recently asked by some colleagues to help them set up a Facebook page for a community of practice for a small group of field based UN staff working in a number of challenging locations. They preferred Facebook over the UN’s official systems for this purpose as according to them everyone uses Facebook, and it’s more user-friendly.

I can see the attraction of setting up a Facebook space – making use of a tool everyone already uses, it’s quick to do, no technical skills are needed and no forms to fill. But for internal business related communities of practice Facebook also has a number of important limitations and for most circumstances I wouldn’t recommend it for this purpose. Here’s why:

1. You don’t own your content, and you don’t know where it will end up and how it will be used. There have been a number of controversies around the ownership and use of data posted on Facebook. While some of these have been resolved – there is a real concern that whatever you post is sitting on an external server somewhere and is being shared with people who you don’t want to see it – even if it’s just to help target advertising (so Facebook can recommend flack jackets and mosquito nets to you perhaps). Given the confidential and sensitive nature of some (but certainly not all) of the UN’s work this could be a little risky. And how many Facebook users really understand how to use the privacy settings correctly.

2. There’s no helpdesk. Yes it’s easy to use – but if your content is lost, or you didn’t adjust your privacy settings correctly or you can’t find something you entered, there’s no person to go to get help. And the nuances of Facebook are harder than they first appear, especially for managing pages and groups. Facebook are always updating their product, which can be good as it constantly improves, but you also have no control over how this happens –they can discontinue a feature or change what you see or chose to block content at any time and there’s nothing you can do about it (timeline anyone?).

3. Clutter. Facebook has so many features and add-ons and has so much diverse content that it can be hard to use – particularly to sift through everything that turns up in your feed and notifications to find what you want. It can be very hard to find past contributions and discussions, and even when a discussion is currently active it can be hard to find what you are looking for in between all the Farmville notifications, birthday calendar invitations and holiday pictures from your friends. Yes, you can specifically navigate to your page or group – but that’s an extra effort that most users don’t make – they generally only look at their feed.

4. Mixing the work and pleasure. Much as I have advocated for living out loud, I don’t think everyone is ready for that yet – but using Facebook for work purposes might bring your colleagues closer to your private life than you might think. They may now be tempted to browse your profile, look at your holiday photos, see what you are reading and what games you are playing etc. even if you are not “friends”. Here it’s not your group’s privacy settings but your own. (I know that whatever you put on Facebook might eventually be seen by your employer – but I can see from some colleagues/friends feeds that they haven’t realized this yet!)

5. Despite all the features it does have, it’s missing a few critical ones such as the ability to easily share and collaborate on files, or having tools such as wikis. Although Facebook pages have some good analytics and other useful tools, it doesn’t have all the kind of features that a community manager needs for managing interactions and memberships (although every tool out there has functionality weaknesses of some sort or other).

It’s not that I don’t like Facebook. It has a number of useful features that can be valuable support you in your work – but you might be better off using something else for your work related communities of practice, especially internally focused ones.

Just to show I’m not totally down on Facebook, here are a few examples of where it can be very useful:

1. It’s a great “address book” to help keep track of all the various people you have befriended and worked with over your career. It can be hard to keep up with people and keep track of where they are, especially if you move a lot,but Facebook is great to help you do this, and to maintain your “weak ties” with people you don’t regularly interact with so you can find them again later if you might need them (and vice versa).

2. It’s good for serendipitous news sharing – I often find interesting and sometimes useful things from my friends Facebook feeds and the pages I follow. I prefer twitter for this, but the user base for both platforms is slightly different and so it’s certain;y useful to use both.

And combining 1. and 2. it can sometimes e a great way of making an important work connection. I recall once shortly after the Haiti Earthquake I was able to connect two different parts of UNICEF one who was requesting a supply and anther that had access to it – just through spotting the connection in my feed (and this is the type of connection that usually doesn’t happen in closed communities of practice but can happen through the more open social web).

3. It’s a great tool for publicity and marketing and engaging with a community of external supporters such as volunteers, supporters, potential donors etc. to get them involved in your work and to get their views. There’s lots written on this elsewhere so I won’t.

It’s also great for all the personal social fun stuff you do on Facebook. Just don’t ask me to recommend it for a work related community of practice.


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 7, 2013 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses

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  1. Thanks for these reflections. What if we replace Facebook with Yammer as this was to be conceived as a professional social network versus the personal Facebook network. Interesting enough most of your arguments remain valid (leaving argument 4 out of it). But even if these arguments remain valid I still see a lot of successful CoPs using Yammer or other similar social network tools that can support CoPs (Ning, Google+, Ellg).

    tom wambeke

    March 7, 2013 at 9:48 am

  2. Tom – good point. I think some of the objections to Facebook might also apply to third party tools like Yammer and Ning – but to a much lesser extent. Yammer for example has less clutter than Facebook, and also they are more responsive to the needs of their users and there is less risk that your content will be inadvertently broadcasted if you don’t want it to be – simply because the tool is more focussed on business customers.

    I think in the end you need to make a choice of tool based on what best meets your needs and budget, and how much of the risks I mention you are willing to tolerate. I singled out Facebook in particular because I’ve heard several times people asking why we don’t just use facebook for Knowledge Management, and I wanted to write down why I think it’s not, in most situations, the right tool.

    Ian Thorpe

    March 7, 2013 at 10:30 am

  3. Ian, thanks for this. (Now I can point other to this instead of explaining myself!) If anything I think the point “clutter” is highly important. Facebook is great for raising awareness and generating spontaneous conversation, but it’s not a tool for collaboration. There is no easy way to direct conversation, or converse in a structured manner.
    On a more philosophical level, I don’t believe there will be one single “go to” online tool. We desire simplicity, but interact on very complex levels. Technology tends to excel when it specializes, not tires to be the answer to everything.

    Michael Riggs

    March 8, 2013 at 4:02 am

    • Michael – agree, there is no one ideal tool or go to place for knowledge sharing. I think most effective communities of practice may have a home community platform that is the “official” place of exchange but they recognize that it’s the exchange not the platform that is most important and will also use other tools to support their work including the more traditional tools of e-mail, phone calls and face to face meetings as well as using other technologies when they are appropriate.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 8, 2013 at 9:17 am

  4. Perhaps you have answered this before and I’ve missed it, but I’m going to ask anyway. Do you have any recommendations?

    As a graduate student all my colleagues have facebook and that was the choice that was made, though I heartily agree with you.


    March 8, 2013 at 4:36 am

    • Shaz – Quick answer – because a real response to this could be the subject of several blog posts.

      It depends on what you are trying to do and who your community is. If you don’t have a corporate system to rely on good cheap or free options include Ning or Yammer (Ning does have a small cost) – not perfect but with some good features for supporting communities.

      If you mainly need a simple discussion forum then older tools such as Google or Yahoo groups are actually quite good as they are free and easy to manage although they share some of the issues of facebook on what happens to the functionality and your data – although facebook has had more visible problems with privacy. The good thing about them is that there is much less clutter and its easier to separate the personal and professional.

      Another option for development related communities might be to set up an e-mail list which is also mirrored online. DGroups ( could be a good option for this but this is managed as a consortium so you either have to join it or get one of the members to set up a group for you.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 8, 2013 at 9:27 am

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply Ian. You’re right, this is a big topic, and there are many people who pore over which types of tools are the best for specific purposes. The guy that comes to mind is Robin Good (see:

        Still, I guess what’s proven great for my class’ purposes is a forum with a preview of comments and the ability to share links, as well as vote things up or down. So, basically just like Facebook + privacy. I think the major issue is about having a tool that very easily accessible to all (and free). I certainly will have a look into DGroups.


        March 8, 2013 at 1:28 pm

  5. Great post, Ian, although I in general agree with you there are some FB features you probably overlooked while preparing this post – it’s all about point 5 on the “thumbs down” list above:
    – FB has an option of sharing files, you can find it within the Groups interface
    – tightly connected to the above there is a sort of Wiki functionality, very rudimentary in terms of formatting options but it allows collaborative editing of the same piece of content. And even simultanious, I believe

    Once again, I like your post, and points raised are very valid, privacy at a first place. Just wanted to add some corrections 🙂

    Jura Khrapunov

    March 8, 2013 at 5:08 am

    • Jura – thanks for the corrections/updates on facebook functionality – I haven’t used facebook groups recently (because of the other concerns) and wasn’t aware of these changes.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 8, 2013 at 9:19 am

  6. […] Dropbox, Ning, WordPress, you name it – even using Facebook for official internal networking (see here on why I don’t think this is a good idea), and YouTube to share internal videos. The upside was […]

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