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'Online Social Networking on Campus'

January 8, 2009

Student affairs administrators are increasingly debating how to use Facebook and other social networking tools -- and whether and how to monitor student use. A new book -- Online Social Networking on Campus: Understanding What Matters in Student Culture (Routledge) -- aims to offer some guidance. The authors are Ana M. Martínez Alemán, chair of educational administration and higher education at Boston College, and Katherine Lynk Wartman, resident director at Simmons College and a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College. Alemán responded to e-mail questions about the book.

Q: What are the important things for higher education professionals to know about how students use Facebook?

A: Higher education professionals should first recognize that online social networking sites like Facebook are part of a larger generational development in computer mediated communication that epitomizes most students on our campuses today. College students use these sites to engage socially in a manner that is not conceptualized as “virtual” and thus not “real”, but rather as a digital exchange of cultural norms and their transgressions broadly conceived. Communication that is exchanged on Facebook, for example, is understood by students as “real” with a complex web of rules that guide playful misrepresentation, for example. Thus, student affairs and higher education professionals should view Facebook as a space in which and through which students communicate generational and institution-specific culture that is mediated by anything and everything that impacts communication -- race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, year in college, etc. In our study, it was evident that student use of Facebook was governed by the degree to which students felt that they controlled self-presentation or digital agency; how they believed that they can regulate the presentation of “self” or performance online; and the broadening and re-configuration of campus community and the consequent growth in student online interdependency. Students will use Facebook to explore new forms of self-expression and “impression management” (control over how and by whom one is viewed), communicate with other students (instead of email, AIM, or audio-phone), organize events locally and beyond, maintain friendships outside of their institutions, communicate with friends and family at home, and increasingly, engage in academic or course-related work.

Q: Are there common student practices on Facebook that are worrisome?

A: Some students in our study did acknowledge that either they themselves or some friends do find themselves “addicted” to Facebook; that they spend much too much time on Facebook. Either as a means of procrastination or as part of social networking typical among first and second year college students, some students do find themselves spending "too much time" on Facebook. In our study we also explored what students had referred to as “stalking” on Facebook. Students explained “stalking” as largely an innocent voyeuristic and information-getting process, though some acknowledged that unacceptable, obsessive stalking behavior does occur. Students also acknowledge that many of the photos uploaded on Facebook are staged; users given access/permission to a student’s profile will see what is willing to be shown. To what extent students engage in worrisome behavior solely to be photographed or “tagged” on Facebook is not clear. Students in the study admitted to exaggerated posing for Facebook photos but did not talk about purposely engaging in risky behaviors solely for the purposes of Facebook. Students were concerned, however, with Facebook “tagging” (being named/identified in a photo on someone’s album).

Q: Some college officials have taken to using Facebook to investigate students -- admissions officers looking at applicants, and student affairs looking at their own students. Do you advise this?

A: Student affairs and other college officials should understand that students manage their self-presentation on Facebook in many ways and to greater and lesser degrees. Some students use the site’s privacy settings to restrict and regulate information, while others don’t restrict much of anything. Students’ self-presentation on Facebook takes place across a spectrum of transparency that is adjusted to meet the user’s needs (fundamentally developmental) and user predilections. Younger students in our study were more transparent and naïve about their self-presentation, while juniors and seniors were more sophisticated users who navigated the complexity of self-representation more adroitly. My advice is to recognize that Facebook is, first, student space -- developmentally and generationally specific -- and second, that it is computer-mediated communication through which students can blur the line between their real worlds and their digital worlds. In other words, if college officials believe that what they "see" on Facebook is "real," they could be wrong.

Q: Your book talks about the issue of whether administrators should create pages on Facebook and friend students. What are your thoughts?

A: Facebook was designed as student space, as a digital campus center, but has evolved to be much more. Part of that evolution has been the expansion of the network or “walled garden” to non-student users outside of colleges and universities, often older users. The presence of college and university faculty on Facebook is a relatively new trend that has raised concerns about professional ethics re: the student-teacher relationship. Because of our unique institutional and professional membership we as faculty are obligated to consider more intentionally our use of Facebook. Students in our study as well as in other studies had mixed feelings about faculty presence on Facebook, and they generally believe that Facebook is intentionally for college students.

What does it mean for a faculty member to “friend” a student or accept a friend request from a student? Do the norms and rules of real-world student-faculty relationships fit the world of Facebook campus culture? Students may feel undue pressure and intimidation given the power that the faculty has over students. Unlike the majority of their relationships with friends, the pre-existing, real life faculty-student relationship is not a peer relationship. Students may feel intimidated or obligated to engage in an online social network relationship with a faculty member simply because they recognize the authority and power resident in the faculty. Students may feel powerless to refuse the online invitation, and despite privacy controls, college users can feel that their community boundary has been breeched. My advice: don’t friend students and don’t accept their invitation to be in their network. A code of Facebook ethics for faculty currently exists on the site and I would recommend that faculty review it.

Student affairs professionals are in a similar position -- they are non-peers and have power over students. They, too, must think very deliberately about their intentions and purposes for their communication on Facebook. Much like faculty, college professionals must consider their position relative to the students’ and how this computer-mediated communication does and does not fit within their professional philosophy. Student affairs professionals can use their Facebook profiles as a means to engage productively with students, to foster student development. For example, student affairs officers use Facebook very expertly to develop cultural norms in residence halls, to provide students with information, and to serve as a college-experience kiosk.

Q: Where do you see social networking among students headed next?

A: SNS will become an instructional tool soon. Facebook has already partnered with a course management system; some faculty have begun to use Facebook groups to foster peer learning, conduct group projects, etc. Computer mediated communication technologies have already made it necessary for academic faculty to modify or simply transfer traditional modes and norms of real-life academic and pedagogical communication online. It’s just a matter of time before we see a SNS as a "classroom" experience.

Among students, SNS communication has already graduated with them i.e. it has become part of their alumni relations, part of their socialization as new professional external to the campus, part of their socialization as young adults heading into graduate school, forming permanent relationships, and becoming parents. As developmental as their Facebook use was to them as college students, so is their use after college. Profession, graduate schooling, and adult relationships already typify their use. Class reunions are now mediated and planned on Facebook and don’t just happen once or every five years.

 

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