I’ll admit, I’m a bit OCD about contact information. For some time I’ve been using Google Sync to synchronize my Google contacts with my Blackberry[1. To illustrate my desperation about/interest in this sort of thing, before Google Sync I paid money for a service called GooSync which essentially did the same thing. I actually even got suckered into plunking down more pounds (British company I guess) for a lifetime subscription about a month before Google Sync was released. I guess I need to read more Google blogs.]. Recently I started a new campaign to reformat all of the phone numbers in my address book to use dot-delimiting[2. I.E., 123.456.7890 instead of the annoyingly-punctuation-full (123) 456-7890 or the sort-of simple-minded 123-456-7890. I mean, the dots just don't get in the way of the numbers, which are the significant pieces of information, whereas the parentheses split the information top-to-bottom and the dashes sit there right at eye-level just hanging out. Is anyone else with me here?], which given that I have ~1000[3. Albeit, some 200 of which are Harvard Summer School students which will get dropped at summer's end. These contacts were also properly entered the first time.] contacts is a fairly slow and torturous process. Doing some of the things that I do — such as resident tutoring — having contact information at my fingertips is really important.
Now, I’ll also admit that my obsession is not typical. My wife’s address book and email contact information is completely unsorted, unsynchronized and — even more frustrating to one with my affliction — even uses first names only! Blasphemy! As additional evidence of my lack-of-normality, a straw poll conducted during a meeting of CS261, Professor Margo Seltzer’s graduate-level course on computer operating systems, revealed that most people did not in fact back up the contact information in their phone in any way. That said, called out as abnormal, I am hoping that this is the direction that our increasingly-connected world is moving in, so one day I will be called prescient and not just anal-retentive.
Given the importance, to me at least, of contact information and more significantly contact information integration I’m increasingly frustrated by facebook.com’s irritating restrictions on moving contact details in and out of their pages. For those interesting, more after the jump.
Part of what is bringing my irritation to a head at this particular moment is my invitation into Google Voice, which I finally got recently. The incredibly nice features that Google Voice offers have doubled my interest in getting Facebook contact information into a form usable by Google, or really anything else.
After considering starting this post a week ago, I decided to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt. I am by no means a Facebook fan-boy or “power user” and so I figured I’d go check out their “Phonebook” features and see if they’d improved in any way. The answer: not really.
So as far as I can tell getting data into Facebook remains easy. I’ve never used their contact importer, since a) I have a lot of GMail contacts, b) most of whom are not necessarily people I want to add to my social network. But I believe it exists in an officially supported format. So that’s fine. And to their credit Facebook has made improvements in getting contact information to your phone (at least mine, a Blackberry; YMMV).
But once contact information arrives at your phone, it’s next to useless. Dear Facebook: I don’t want a Facebook Phonebook dialer. I want all of my contacts, Facebook or not, accessible through the same interface. I don’t want to have first try and dial/email someone using my Blackberry address book and then have to think, wait, maybe they’re in my Facebook Phonebook instead! Maybe their numbers/email addresses are different in both places! This is a mess.
No, what I want is for you to help me synchronize the contact information I already have. The ability to “link” your Facebook Friends to your Blackberry contacts is tantalizingly close, but seems as close as Facebook is willing to get. Linking your friends and Blackberry contacts (which I’ve spent many, many hours doing over the last week; see O.C.D. about contact information reference above) seems to accomplish only two things. First, it pulls the Facebook Friend’s picture down from Facebook and uses it as their Blackberry Contact photo. This is sort of nice[4. Given that I've never figured out how to get the Google Sync program to either pull or push contact photos to my phone.], although the photos are both small and emblazoned with the Facebook logo in the corner. Also, given that many people’s Facebook profile photos are not, in fact, of them and instead feature a confusing mixture of their children, friends[5. Almost always just their more attractive friends...] and a mascot they had their picture taken with at the baseball game, it would be nice to have the application prompt me before overwriting any photos I had had. But whatever, these are nits, and it’s better than the photos I had before (namely none).
The second thing that it synchronizes is your contacts employers. Strange? Strange. Particularly given that, at least among my friends, what they list under the employer field of their profile includes entries like “I’d rather not say…”[6. And I'd rather not know...?] and “Myself!”[7. Complete with exclamation point.]. Again, not the most helpful.
Given that they are able to do these things, it’s obvious that it would be technically feasible for them to pull down useful information, like phone numbers, email addresses, etc. Why does a worthless no-value-added site like Plaxo even exist? Facebook could have this market in an instant, if they would stop being so boneheaded about allowing contact information to pop out of their carefully-enclosed Facebook-application-driven boundaries.
The fact is, I’d probably use Facebook more and take my “friends” list more seriously if they did, in fact, facilitate this sort of contact integration. Why companies decide this sort of bundling and wall-building is a good idea is beyond me, but it’s particularly disappointing coming from a group of smart people doing some intelligent and fairly interesting things.