Ask anyone what Facebook is, and they’re likely to give the same short, sweet answer: it’s a social networking site. Indeed, that’s its primary use for me these days (once I have all of the games filtered out and ignore the politics and religion), but that’s not its only use.
As an example, I’m working on an article about closed captioning for the Journal of Court Reporting. I needed some interviews for the article, so I sat down to compile a list of people to talk to. I had my email program open on one of my screens, and Facebook open on the other, and it got me thinking. I’ve been fairly diligent about sorting my friends into lists, and I just happen to have a list for friends who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or work with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.
I went through the list, saying “oh, I need to talk to her” and “I wonder what he’d say about this issue.” I fired off a quick private message to each of the people I wanted to talk to, and started scheduling interview times. In the past, I’ve done a lot of telephone interviews, and a lot of email interviews. I have also done interviews using a variety of chat systems, ranging from CompuServe and IRC online to TDDs (telecommunication devices for the deaf) online, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve done online chat interviews.
Just for kicks, I decided to see how much of the communication for this article I can do using Facebook, just to see how it works out. Obviously, this limited my base of potential interviewees to people I know (or can find) on Facebook. It also slows things down a bit, as typed conversations are slower than oral ones. Here are a few comments, observations, and tips on the process:
- Having a verbatim transcript of the interview is handy. During phone interviews, I’m often scrambling to take notes as we talk, and doing it on Facebook chat means I can just cut and paste quotes into the article (however, see #4 below).
- The process is much more interactive than an email interview, allowing each question to be tailored based on previous responses. Trying to replicate this in email could stretch the process out for days.
- Being able to insert links in the chat is a big help if you want to show the interviewee something and get comments on it.
- Using chat introduces an interesting journalistic dilemma. Even careful writers have a tendency to use chat abbreviations (e.g., BTW, OTOH, IIRC) and not worry much about punctuation. When quoting them in the article, should you leave their text as-is, or write it out and re-punctuate it as you would for a phone interview? Hmmm. I think I’ll ask that question on a couple of message boards — or maybe bounce it around on Facebook. I’ll follow up here later.
- This could work just as well on Google+, except for the paucity of people on G+ compared to Facebook.
- This would be an annoying process on Twitter, worrying all the time about hitting that maximum character count. Some of the Facebook responses were quite long.
- The partially-synchronous nature of chat leads to some interesting responses. Often, both of you are typing at the same time (Facebook tries to tell you when the other person’s typing, but that is often flaky). Several times, I typed questions as the interviewees were typing comments that answered my questions. Reading the transcript, it looks like they answered my questions before I asked them!
- Sometimes it’s hard to hang back and wait for the other person to finish their thoughts before asking something else, but it pays off if you do!
So, is Facebook a social networking site? Certainly it is. But it’s a lot more these days, too.
Once the article appears in print, I’ll put a copy of it online so you can judge how well the process worked out.
UPDATE: Here it is.