The Many Faces of Facebook

Administrators discuss challenges posed by the popular Web site.
June 15, 2006

Social networking, event announcements, roommate vetting, law enforcement, and recently a bit of job browsing … has an impressive array of uses.

The reach of the peer networking site -- over 7 million users from over 2,600 colleges -- is undeniable, and student affairs professionals are often left wondering whether they should keep Facebook out of sight and out of mind, or whether they should dive in face first.

The answer given by Shawn McGuirk, director of judicial affairs, mediation and education at Fitchburg State College, in Massachusetts, was that, if institutions want to know what the kids are doing these days, they’ll want to know what they’re doing on Facebook. The good, and the bad. In a Magna Publications Web seminar for student affairs staff members Wednesday, McGuirk said that colleges should use Facebook faux pas as teachable moments whenever possible, rather than embracing Facebook as policy or law enforcement tool.

“If you’re snooping around [Facebook],” said McGuirk, who added that he enjoys Facebook himself, “word gets out that you’re snooping. I don’t know if that’s going to build the relationship you want with students.”

At Troy University in Alabama, a student reporter wrote a passion enflaming article when a campus officer told him that officers had been monitoring Facebook, and many editions of the newspaper with the article were mysteriously stolen.

What McGuirk said he’d rather see is administrators using Facebook to get students thinking about how they want to craft their public persona.

One picture McGuirk displayed was from the profile of a Fitchburg student pointing a gun at another person. The gun turned out to be a water gun, but McGuirk said he had a conversation with the student about the image he was projecting. Ultimately, the student decided to remove the picture.

Some students aren’t so lucky. In March 2005, a University of Oklahoma student was investigated by the Secret Service for making assassination references about President Bush on Facebook. In May 2005, two swimmers at Louisiana State University lost their scholarships for making disparaging comments about their coach on Facebook.

And the need for networking-site education is reaching into lower grades. In March, a California middle school student faced expulsion for posting hate crime language about a classmate on Twenty other students were suspended for viewing the post.

McGuirk said that, only in cases where a threat against a student is brought to his attention does he feel the need for judicial action.

One of the main questions student affairs professionals who logged into the seminar had for McGuire amounted to: Where do we begin talking to students about Facebook?

Some colleges have begun talking to students about Facebook at orientation.

McGuirk said that “by far” the best official institutional statement he has come across is Cornell University’s essay by Tracy Mitrano, Director of IT Policy and the Computer Policy & Law Program: “Thoughts on Facebook.” Facebook is “a cool tool,” according to Mitrano … “it might be an introduction into business as you think of how to 'market' yourself. Individuals with particular social identities or hobbies, say as a Christian gay person or someone who likes a narrow range of military on-line games, can use it to find friends with common interests.”

The essay goes on to talk about creating an online image as a form of marketing with which students want to be forward-looking. “What might seem fun or spontaneous at 18, given caching technologies, might prove to be a liability to an on-going sense of your identity over the longer course of history,” Mitrano wrote.

Most of the rest of the questions for McGuire from administrators were legal questions. For many institutions, Facebook is potential minefield of legal gray areas.

McGuirk said it’s probably better to turn a blind eye to Facebook in terms of conduct monitoring so that, if something bad happens, an institution can’t be held responsible for knowing and not responding.

One administrator wanted to know if, since Facebook claims all postings as its property, students who display original art or photos on Facebook give up their rights to them.

“At least the posting,” McGuirk said, “I would suspect Facebook owns it.”

To which another administrator asked: if Facebook owns the postings should it be responsible for evidence that might be of interest to law enforcement officials?

“The town police might own a picture of you doing something wrong,” McGuirk said, “but it’s still evidence.”


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