My "innovation project" team of master’s students at the Medill School is tackling two interesting challenges: (1) improving the tools available for online interaction around news (for instance, better ways of commenting) and (2) engaging young adults in local news. They’ve decided to take advantage of Facebook Connect in building a news-interaction site. This means Facebook users will be able to log in using their Facebook ID, and it also means that this ID will serve as their persistent identity on the site.

Read/Write Web, one of my favorite sites/blogs, posted last week about Facebook Connect. The post points out that both Google and Yahoo! have competing products in the same space: allowing people to bring their social networks with them to other sites.

The more I think and read about these products, the more important (and hard to predict) the consequences of "portable" social networks seem. One view, from Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li, is that social networks will be "like air." People won’t interact with their social networks on Web sites; rather, their social networks will affect their experiences across multiple sites. I wrote about this last week for the Readership Institute (part of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center.)

A world of portable social networks is potentially quite powerful. A single ID can let you in to a variety of social sites, and your friends’ content can be highlighted on those sites. Meanwhile, contributions you make on many sites can be aggregated through services such as FriendFeed.

On the other hand, portable networks only compound the problem that Cory Doctorow describes in "How Your Creepy Ex-Co-Workers Will Kill Facebook." Most of us have multiple real-life social networks, and we don’t necessarily want them all to interact with one another. (Cory’s example, courtesy of danah boyd, is a teacher who doesn’t want her students or her boss, the principal, to see the photos from her friends at the Burning Man Festival.)

We don’t know when Facebook users will see Facebook Connect as valuable (because they won’t have to register separately for a new site) or intrusive (maybe they don’t want their Facebook ID to follow them around the Web).

My students think, though, that Facebook Connect can help solve several problems related to online conversations around news. For one thing, comments made by other people on the site can be filtered by whether someone is your Facebook friend. Another thought is that the quality of conversation will increase because people will know they are being identified by their Facebook profiles.

As one of the "programmer-journalists" in the class, Brian Boyer, has written:

Will you be more likely to comment if you know your friends will see what you have to say? Will you be less likely to act like a jackass? We’re hoping so.

You can follow the students’ work at Crunchberry Project (named after one of the products produced at the Quaker Oats factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of class sponsor Gazette Communications).