Academe’s Facebook Problem

Isn’t it time, Hollis Robbins asks, for higher education institutions to reclaim the real estate that was once theirs and build their own digital platforms?

February 16, 2021
 
 
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Facebook was born on a college campus and initially limited to college students, so its growth and reach into higher ed was perhaps inevitable. Facebook was an immediately useful platform for maintaining intellectual and social community across geographic and institutional divides. Brief updates and long discussion threads kept the 2 a.m. dorm room conversations going strong.

But putting aside the many concerns raised about social media’s role in recent politics, the more crucial issue for higher education is that Facebook is terrible for storage and search, which for institutions whose mission is the gathering, evaluating and dissemination of knowledge is a serious problem.

Facebook’s usefulness is undeniable. From its early days, it was doing the work of alumni magazines and reunion committees in keeping the gang together for free. At first, colleges and universities worried about weakened alumni ties as everyone flocked to the new site. But Facebook’s group-creation feature allayed concerns: colleges could create pages for alumni as well as parents, admitted students, professional conferences and public and private events. Academic units jumped into the fray, making and maintaining pages for all manner of courses, speakers, conversations and debate.

So what does it matter that a substantial portion of higher ed life lives on Facebook? The problems are threefold.

First, Facebook can no longer be considered a safe or neutral platform for anyone, let alone institutions with missions to educate people and correct disinformation. While individual users may still choose to use the platform, the many accusations against Facebook as enabling the proliferation of misinformation and conspiracy -- not to mention concerns about the well-documented human costs of content moderation -- should give higher education leaders pause. By creating and using Facebook pages for the dissemination of institutional information, are colleges and universities encouraging community members -- including future students, often minors -- to visit a site that is increasingly controversial and polarizing?

Second, how much institutional memory has accumulated on your institution’s Facebook pages and how might you go about moving those archives back to your institution? Facebook has been extraordinarily useful as a combination bulletin board and filing cabinet for overworked administrators and staff members. Is your address list out of date? Do you have limited funds for printing costs? Posting events on Facebook is free. But who is maintaining the files back at the institution? How would you go about celebrating a 10-year anniversary of a Facebook-engaged academic center without the onerous task of downloading and retrieving posters, photos and comments? And what if your access were lost?

Third, in an era of declining enrollments, what opportunities has your institution lost by not having invested in building out its own platforms over the past decade? At the moment, the interactive educational platforms that higher ed institutions use, such as Blackboard or Canvas, are clunky, aesthetically displeasing and far from user-friendly. The most successful higher ed interactive engagement involves admissions chat bots. What experiments and innovations could colleges and universities have pursued if they had not been so dependent on Facebook? How might academic units have promoted, hosted and stored information differently? What connections with students and alumni could institutions have forged more strongly without social media mediation?

I recently met with the chair of my institution’s theater arts and dance department about her concept of a Zero Gravity Dance Lab to explore, in coordination with our science departments and supported by NASA education grants, what dance might look like in space. She knows my views about Facebook and asked, “Couldn’t we could just use social media to send students to our website? And couldn’t we have a chat function so interested students could ask questions of faculty and get answers right on our website?” This type of novel idea is what institution and department pages should have been developing all along.

Higher ed institutions have ceded to commercial social media platforms the very lawn and seminar room space that faculty members, administrators and alumni have valued for centuries. Facebook, not the institution, hosts the bulletin board of exciting events, a large portion of the vibrant community and energetic debate, and more than a decade-long archive of personal and community engagement.

The comfort the academy has with a vibrant virtual academic space is part of the reason that the pivot to remote instruction and electronically mediated community in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, was as seamless as it was. It is certainly true that, had we less facility and familiarity with digital social spaces, we might not have felt as “at home” with our virtual academic communities as we have felt this past year. Yes, we have Facebook to thank for this.

But isn’t it time for institutions of higher education to reclaim the real estate that was once theirs and build their own digital platforms as sites of interactive learning and exploration, intellectual conviviality and scholarly engagement, creative expression and academic debate?

Some people can jump in and warn about the obvious minefield that content moderation on a college and university interactive media site would involve. This isn’t a call for individuals to delete Facebook accounts, and indeed it may be less straightforward to limit the comment section on an institution’s own platform than to determine whether faculty, staff or student speech on Facebook crosses a line. But colleges and universities should acknowledge their dependence on Facebook for archiving their intellectual and social life and instead encourage community on their own platforms.

Bio

Hollis Robbins is dean of arts and humanities at Sonoma State University.

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