Facebook and the Future of the University

Tom Wood

In my last posting, “The Extracurricular Sector of the University: Unappreciated and Soon to Be Unneeded,” I argued that the extracurricular sector of the university is destined to become roadkill on the superhighway to the all-digital, online university of the not so distant future. As I hastened to add there, it is not that the extracurricular aspect of academic life is unimportant; it is simply that in the all-digital future of the Superfast Internet, it will be both unnecessary and inappropriate for colleges and universities to assume the responsibility of supporting and organizing the extracurriculum. In this connection, I mentioned that social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, which are already used by millions of students, will provide the necessary backbone for students and faculty to develop entirely new academic communities. I also argued that incoming freshmen using social-networking sites like Facebook and Myspace could make better decisions about things like roommate assignments in the residence halls than Res Life or Student Affairs staff.

A day or two after posting that article, I came across two articles that informed me that students and colleges are already using social-networking sites like Facebook for some of the things I suggested they could be used for. So much for trying to stay ahead of the curve of this new technology. It is changing so many things so rapidly that it is almost impossible to keep up with it, much less ahead of it.

The first article, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, mentioned that administrators at Amherst check the Facebook sites of the college’s students on a regular basis. Amherst students, they find, often talk about their needs on campus on Facebook before, or instead of, bringing them to the attention of campus administrators. Administrators at Amherst have also found that Facebook has changed the nature of freshman orientation on the campus. Since the advent of Facebook, incoming students have already spent months interacting with each other online before they show up for orientation.

The second article, also in the CHE, argues that social-networking sites and the virtual communities they support can and should be used in higher education to create more lively social interactions for students. The author, a professor of communications at the University of Houston-Downtown, cites a number of examples where this is already occurring. Facebook groups, he says, support live rallies and political meetings, and YouTube videos are being used to promote live events. (YouTube itself has started its own colleges site to compete with Facebook in this arena.)


More Ways Facebook is Being Used and is Changing University Culture

It then occurred to me to Google for the keywords “Facebook, universities, colleges.” I got a large number of hits to articles that mentioned ways in which Facebook is already being used by students, faculty, and administrators. I will mention some of these uses here, partly because they buttress my claim that the Internet is rapidly taking over functions that previously belonged exclusively to the Res Life and Student Affairs divisions on campus, and also because the articles give an interesting snapshot of how the social aspect academics is being transformed by the new technology.

“Facebook: A campus fad becomes a campus fact” (Christian Science Monitor, December 13, 2006) mentions a number of ways in which students and faculty are using Facebook outside the classroom. These include: the formation of ad hoc groups to protest administration policies to which students object; other forms of campus activism to ban everything from “horse-slaughter to button-fly jeans”; the use of Facebook as an alternative to fliers to advertise membership and events; and campaigning by student politicians.

Other uses, not mentioned, at least directly, by any of the above, include:

  • Administrations ask current students to blog on Facebook about their lives on campus; these blogs can then be used to promote the colleges to prospective students. 
  • Colleges are using Facebook to send news alerts and warnings to students, and students are able to respond with on the spot current reports. Since Facebook now has widgets that support video uploads (like YouTube), students can upload videos of current events to Facebook. (You might have seen, as I did, some network TV news programs that invited viewers to do this sort of thing during Hurricane Ike.) 
  • Professors have put their profiles on Facebook in order to add a personal touch to their classes, to introduce themselves to prospective students, and to network with faculty and old graduate-school colleagues. 
  • A new company, Facebookster, has been formed to help programmers develop simple apps (applications) to extend the power of Facebook. (One can think of these as being similar to the plug-ins for your web browser.) 

Other Social Networking Sites in Academe

Facebook is by far the most widely used of all the social-networking sites by college students. As I have previously mentioned, Facebook was created originally by a Harvard undergraduate to give incoming students there a way to get to know other people on campus. Since its inception Facebook’s rate of growth, particularly in the higher education market, has been phenomenal. Facebook estimates that 85% of college students in four-year colleges are registered with it. This estimate is corroborated by reports by college officials and instructors. For example, Iowa State University, which has a total enrollment of 25,741, has 20,247 registered users on Facebook. Michael Tracey (ibid.), a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, reports that in one class only a couple of students out of a class of about 140 raised their hands when he asked whether anyone had seen the previous night’s NewsHour on PBS or read that day’s New York Times. But every student in the class had used Facebook; in fact, every student in the class had used it that very day.

Although Facebook has captured the lion’s share of the college market, other social-networking sites have sprung up that provide competition or at least an alternative to Facebook. For example, MySpace has been used by some colleges and universities as an alternative to Facebook in their promotional efforts. Given Facebook’s dominant market share, it makes more sense for a college to develop a “profile” of itself as an institution on Facebook rather than Myspace or some other alternative. Facebook’s policy, however, is to limit registration to persons and to exclude institutions, so colleges who want to promote or advertise in this market have had to use alternatives like MySpace.

The sheer size of Facebook has become a marketing disadvantage for certain users, forcing some Netizens to create their own, smaller, more specialized alternatives. One example is The Graduate Junction, a site designed to build a global research community that already has participants in over 70 different countries. According to Daniel M. Colgate, a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Durham and a cofounder of the site, The Graduate Junction is designed to put early-career researchers in touch with each other. Facebook was found to be too big to be useful for this purpose, so Colgate decided to create his own more focused academic site. Netizens seeking a smaller, more targeted niche than the mammoth Facebook have also created their own social-networking sites on the Web for fellow alumni of their alma maters.

The Use—and Exploitation—by Others of Students’ Use of Facebook

Since an estimated 85% of four-year college students are on Facebook, and most of their profiles are public, it is not surprising that others are using Facebook for their own networking and entrepreneurial purposes.

Zimride is a new company that matches riders and rides through social-networking sites, especially Facebook. The software, which replaces the old “ride boards” at colleges, can either be imbedded on college web sites or in Facebook. According to founder Logan Green, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara, Zimride appeals to users because it enables them to know something about potential ride mates before decisions are made. "No one,” as he points out, “wants to get in a car with a total stranger.”

Facebook is also being mined by politicians and their campaigns, since party affiliations are part of the public profiles of many students on Facebook. The Obama campaign has been particularly adept at using the data mined from Facebook and other social-networking sites to enlist and mobilize potential supporters at colleges and universities. According to a 2007 study on civic engagement by Kent E. Portney, Lisa O'Leary, et al. of Tufts University, a majority of college students already belong to at least four online political- or social-advocacy groups.

Not all the uses to which Facebook have been put have been welcomed by student users. Invasions of privacy have been a major problem. Facebook does give its users the option of keeping profiles private, but this setting defeats many of the advantages that come from using Facebook. However, with the public, non-private setting, students can expect their profiles to attract unwanted visitors as well as the desired ones.

Parents have often figured prominently among the unwanted visitors. We saw earlier that incoming freshmen are already using Facebook to get acquainted with roommates and other cohorts even before the first week of orientation on campus. Parents are also using Facebook to vet these potential or assigned roommates, and many have protested the choices and decisions made by the universities. This is just one of the ways in which parents have used Facebook profiles to monitor the activities of their sons and daughters on campuses far away from home.

Some college admissions officers are also using the profiles on Facebook to vet students who apply to their universities. Kaplan, the education company owned by the Washington Post Co., surveyed 500 colleges and found that 10-percent of admissions officers at these institutions admitted to looking at social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to evaluate student applicants. Another study, by the Center for Marketing Research at U Mass Dartmouth, found that 21 percent of colleges did so. In general, this snooping by college admissions officers does not work to the advantage of the student. A quarter of the admissions officers who were surveyed say that the viewings have had a positive impact on their evaluations, compared to 38 percent who reports that the use of social-networking sites has generally had a negative impact on their evaluations. Colleges and universities have also used students’ Facebook profiles to monitor student behavior online, and what they have found there has often led to disciplinary action against the offending student. However, this is an area that is fraught with danger for universities. F.I.R.E. is currently involved in litigation defending the rights of students against this kind of snooping.


On the Essential Non-Locality of Online Social Networking and the Future of the University

We have seen a number of different ways in which students, and to a lesser extent faculty and administrators, have used Facebook and other social-networking sites within the context of the traditional brick and mortar college or university. Note, however, that unlike the department bulletin boards or fliers distributed in the student union or campus cafeterias of time past, the technology that is involved here is essentially non-local in character. True, academics use Facebook to build their own communities grouped by region and even by campus, but this is not essential to the technology. Facebook’s headquarters are in Palo Alto. Perhaps its server farm is there, too, but it need not be. The server farm might just as well be on the North Pole. None of this matters to the end user.

As I pointed out in my previous posting, humans being what they are, academics (students and faculty) will continue to congregate and associate in physical locations in the usual ways even in the future world of the all-digital university. But the essential non-locality of the social-networking technology that academics are already using will inevitably undermine the traditional residential college, because with this new technology students and faculty can organize their social lives as they wish, independent of any physical campus.

I anticipate that this will be a good thing, both for the social lives of academics, and for the academic purposes of the universities themselves. The new digital technology permits a very powerful and useful division of labor. Colleges and universities are already finding that students prefer Facebook and related sites to those that are created for them by their own universities. Nor is this surprising, since students and faculty are perfectly capable of organizing and arranging their personal and social lives themselves. Social-networking sites like Facebook just make this easier. Academics, students and faculty, will be liberated in the all-digital university world of the not so distant future to organize their own personal and social lives in new, imaginative ways, leaving universities free to concentrate all their energies on what they are really about and what they do best: teaching and research.

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