I did some research on Facebook.com last Friday. I gained access to the site for a few hours to look at our upper school representation, and I found about 31 students with registered accounts there. Overall, the interactions I saw were more mature than those at MySpace.com, and I saw more links to students known from other schools. There were also picture libraries, full names and even some phone numbers. Nearly all the profiles were “fully open” to other students at our school, as well as to students from other schools by invitation.
Then I did some news searches about Facebook and found several articles from college newspapers about the service. Facebook started in only February of 2004, but it already has 9 million college students at 2000 institutions registered, and it adds 10 to 20 thousand new accounts each day.
It’s worth doing a Google News Search on Facebook: many colleges and universities are becoming involved with disciplinary and privacy issues surrounding the site. Some colleges are trying to ban the site entirely. At others, college police are using the site for research on inappropriate or illegal activities (and possibly evidence). Some college newspapers are using Facebook profiles, pictures and information for articles, and reposting pictures and text from the sites for news articles about drinking and other rules violations. Facebook lawyers argue that this is a violation of the user agreement because the information is being reproduced without permission from Facebook, yet the college newspaper advisors argue that the materials are “newsworthy” and not protected. There are also stories of students not getting campus jobs after their profiles were reviewed.
Facebook, MySpace.com, LiveJournal and several other such sites have been a topic of recent discussion on this list, but I sense that a gray area exists that isn’t necessarily covered by the “Internet Safety” advice we give to students. Just as face-to-face harassment is difficult for students to discern from “joking and friendship building,” so are the types of information exchanged on these sites.
Given this, I think we need to develop better “Advice in Motion” materials for students. I’m working on the Defense and Avoidance policies suggested by Jason Johnson, but at this point I think we also need to fully define the use of the online spaces for gathering information about others and sharing information about oneself. The lines between online and actual identities (and the public and private) are becoming hopelessly blurred.
What I find most fascinating about my own blog is how I have to balance my writing to be both personal and public. I want to share experiences and ideas about educational technology, but at the same time I have to write carefully, knowing that the site is not just for me or my friends, but also for my local colleagues and possibly future friends and collaborators. The care and thought needed to craft a public set of postings with this in mind is significant, but rewarding. Most importantly, I feel I’m learning about what students need to consider as they create a public persona online that may be seen by far more people than just friends.
I’d be happy to hear from others for “Advice in Motion” recommendations (for safety, defense, avoidance, multiple audiences, future reference, and opportunity growth) that I can integrate into my materials for students, parents and educators. I’m also interested in how modified coursework and discussion in departments and courses may also advance the abilities of students in this area. As Facebook suggests, this is a growing issue that isn’t going to go away anytime soon. I’ll post a summary of suggestions here in a week or two after everyone has a chance to respond.