Ludwik Kowalski (2/23/2014)

Professor Emeritus, Montclair State University, Montclair NJ, USA

Introduction to Facebook

I am one of more than 500 million people whose computers (or similar devices) are connected to the Internet, and who have Facebook accounts. Each of us has access to the Facebook server--a computer I call robot. The robot knows everything that we are doing; he coordinates our activities, via the Internet. In fact, Facebook (FB) is said to be an Internet-based communication tool. It is a social medium similar to email, but more sophisticated.

Suppose this tool exists in a country in which there are exactly ten million people. Suppose that only 26 of them have Facebook accounts. I will refer to account owners by their single-letter user names: A, B, C, D, ..... X,Y, Z. One must create an FB account to participate in FB activities. Why did I limit the number of participants to 26? Because our alphabet contains only 26 letters. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which 50% of inhabitants, or more, are account owners, with unique user names and passwords. The way to create an FB account is described at:

The purpose of this section is to introduce some essential terms. Being the owner of the account K, I can subdivide owners of other accounts into two groups, strangers and friends. Anyone who has a FB account is a stranger, as far as I am concerned. Any participant can easily establish, or cancel, friendship with any other participant, as described in the next section. To have an account means to have a place on the FB server.

To begin a Facebook session I go to

and log in, by identifying myself, that is by typing my email address and my password. That is how each session begins. During a session I perform various communication tasks. To end a session I go to the gear menu and select the “logout” option. The gear menu is located on the blue bar, at the top of each of my FB pages.

The page that opens, at the beginning of a session, has two names, "home" and "newsfeed." It displays the blue bar (near the upper right corner). The area below that bar is subdivided into three columns: left (containing links,) right (containing advertisements), and central (containing messages that I created or received). Which messages are actually displayed in the central column depends on which of the two options is selected in the blue bar, Ludwik or Home. By selecting the first option I will see messages I created, on a page called "wall" or "profile." By selecting the second option I will see messages received. Who are authors of received messages? They are my friends, robot, or myself.

The text box, below the blue bar, on my home page, is the robot's invitation to create a new message. I can type what is on my mind and click the "POST" button. Any message I post appears on my home page, on my "wall page," and also in the newsfeeds on the "home pages" of my friends. My wall (profile) page also contains the "what is on your mind?" text box. It can be used to post a message om my wall page. Messages, on my wall and home pages, are arranged in reverse chronological orders--the most recent are on top and the oldest are at the bottom. Each message displays the date on which it was composed. One has to scroll down to see older posts.

Why do FB participants post messages? Because they hope that other participants will read them, sooner or later. They also hope to receive comments on what they write, posted by friends. The whole communication system, as indicated above, is controlled by an omniscient entity called robot. Suppose I want to access D's home page. To accomplish this I type D's name in the search box on the left side of the blue bar.

The robot immediately takes me to that page. Any FB participant can be taken to that page, in the same way, and read messages posted there. Suppose a participant H, who is my friend, types my name in the search bar of his home page. That takes him to my home page and allows him to read all messages posted on my home page, and to post comments. A participant who is not my friend can also access my home page and see messages there. But s/he may not be able to post comments.

It is important to emphasize that the FB tool would not be as useful as it is without being constantly supervised by the robot. He knows everything that happens on the Facebook server, including contents of our posts. That enables him to visit home pages of individual account owners, and create notifications which, in his opinion, might be of some interest to them. To see such notifications, if any, one should click the globe icon on the blue bar.

My Personal FB Experience

As stated above, posts on Facebook pages appear in reverse chronological order, more recent posts above older posts. Each post displays three items at the top, the full name of the author, his or her picture, and the date. Consider the following scenario. Owner X creates a post. It appears on two of her pages, "wall," and "home." It also appears on "home" pages belonging to each of her friends. One of her friends is Y. He reads her post (on his home page) and creates a comment--the process of creating posts and comments will be described below. Where can the comment be found? It can be found in the following places:

*) on X's "wall,"where the post was created
*) on X's "home"
*) on Y's "wall," (because Y is a friend of X)
*) on the "home" pages of other friends of X (when Y is not her only friend )

Comments posted by friends appear below the original posts of X. Suppose Z also commented on X's post. His comment would at once appear beneath the comment created by Y. The robot sends an email notification to the author of the original post, that is, X. Notifications contain links to the original post. After clicking on the link the author would see the original post and all the comments below it.

How do I create a post on my "wall" page? This question has already been answered; I do this from the "what is on your mind" box. And how do I comment on a friend's post appearing on my home page? I do this by clicking the “Comment” link, below his post. This brings the list of already existing comments (if any), made by his other friends. I can read them, if I want. The empty textbox below the list is an invitation to type a comment. I can ignore the invitation, or I can type a comment and click the return key.

Additiol Observations

a) I am fully aware that this description might confuse someone who has no Facebook experience. All will probably become clear after one starts interacting with known individuals, rather than with abstract creatures such as X, Y and Z. It is a challenge to create an effective textual tutorial. The YouTube videos that I found on the Internet were not very helpful. They are no substitute for practicing. Abram's book, from which I am learning, contains many illustrations. Unfortunately, what these illustrations show often differs from what I see on my computer screen, when I try to do what is textually described. This is probably because the current Facebook interface is not the same as it was less than one year ago, when this book was published.

b) The FB interface is also changing over time. I have recently discovered that they changed the name and location of a button that I described accurately described several months ago.

c) The "wall" page of each account owner contains a button labeled, for example, "Friends 7." This tells the owner that s/he has 7 friends. By clicking this button the owner will see full names of his friends, and their pictures. Each photo is a link; by clicking on that link the account owner, is at once taken to the profile page of that friend. The owner who has many Facebook friends might not see all their pictures in the list. But he would see a link to the area where additional friends are listed.

d) Pretending to be a stranger, rather than an account owner, I went to Google and typed “Facebook Ludwik Kowalski” into the search box. This took me to the profile page of another Ludwik Kowalski, where I could view his posts and the list of his friends. The search box, at the top of his page, was displaying Ludwik Kowalski. I clicked in the blank space after this name and the name Ludwik Kowalski was replaced by the link “Find all people named Ludwik Kowalski." I clicked on this link and a list displaying full names (and photos) of several account owners sharing that full name appeared. Clicking on my own photo, I was taken to my profile page.

e) When practicing how to use my Facebook account I occasionally encountered situations in which consequences of clicking on links were not reproducible. What was displayed seemed to depend on what I was doing before using the links. This can be contrasted with other applications, such as search engines. What appears when one is searching for something on Google, for example, does not depend on who is searching, it depends only on what has been typed into the search box. Will search engines become context dependent applications one day? Will artificial intelligence replace human intelligence one day? Will human beings start communicating with each other by single words, instead of grammatically structured sentences? Such question do come to my mind, as I am learning how to use Facebook. Unfortunately, I am not able to produce reliable answers. Googling for information I found several posts in which people complained that frequent changes in the Facebook interface created confusion.

Wishful thinking

a) The robot-assisted interface (the way of interacting with people) is too crowded and unnecessarily complex, in my opinion. No wonder that describing and remembering it is not easy. To simplify the interface, I would place all task commands in menus only, as in some applications, or only in clearly labeled toolbars. I do not like to use an interface where commands are scattered all over, and where there are different ways to accomplish the same thing.

b) What would my recommendation be, if someone asked me for two interface improvements? First I would ask for a single command to replace all personal preferences by the original default settings. Then I would ask for a single command to delete all posts from my home page; deleting them one by one is practically impossible, when hundreds of posts are added on some days.

c) The Internet provides many servers for computer-mediated communication. One of them is Phys-L. It is a mailing list for physics teachers--about 700 members from over 35 countries. I greatly benefited from what was posted there, over several decades. The list has an email address. To share a post, or comment, each of us can email it to this address. The content is at once forwarded to all members. They react in any way they wish. Some of them preserve posts in their folders, others delete them or send immediate comments to the list.

I belong to another information-exchange server:

This forum, like Facebook, is accessed by using a browser, not email. But, unlike Facebook, the forum has only one "wall.” Posts residing in that area are sorted according to categories, such as psychology, religion, science, sport, etc. By clicking on one of these words a person is taken to the desired section. After clicking on the word science, for example, the person would see a set of links to numerous science-related posts. One does not have to be a member to visit the Project Reason wall, and to read existing posts. Try it now. It is very convenient to deal with posts sorted according to names of sections. To read a post one should click on its link in a chosen section.

d) But visitors are not allowed to create posts; only members can do this. A member has two options after selecting a section. She can reply to a post she is reading, or she can write about something not related to that post (by clicking the “start new topic” link. By creating a post (rather than by commenting on an existing post) she would start a sequence of posts called a thread. All replies to her posts, if any, would belong to this thread; not all threads contain comments. The fact that individual threads are sorted by sections, and by threads in each section, is also very convenient. I wish Facebook threads were also organized in that way.