Using Social Networking Tools to Communicate and Interact with Students

Given students’ (perhaps unwarranted) expectations of privacy and boundaries, should college and university administrators use social networking sites to communicate and interact with students? If the answer is “yes,” how can we effectively and ethically use those tools and interact with students (and others) in those spaces?

There aren’t easy answers to either of those questions. Further, those two questions are intimately intertwined and very difficult or impossible to consider separately. Let’s explore a few issues and resources recently written about those issues that may offer some answers and provide guidance.

First is a recent post to the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative Spotlight blog. The piece was written by folks with Global Kids who work within Teen Second Life. It’s centered on a few brief comments from teens explaining their view of (the Global Kids) adults’ presence in Teen Second Life. I don’t know how representative the views expressed are of the views of teens at large or even just the teens who use Teen Second Life. There also arises the question of how or if one can extrapolate those views from Teen Second Life and its participants to the teen population at large and its participants in social networking services.

Second is another discussion of users’ (false?) expectation of privacy and the perceived erosion of privacy on the Internet. This small part of a much longer and ongoing discussion began with a blog post entitled “Social network users have ruined their privacy, forever.” The post was also linked to from Slashdot where the discussion continued. While I am not familiar with the website on which the original post was written or its author, it’s clearly an emotionally-charged opinion piece. Stripped of the hyperbole and vitriol, the basic gist of the article is one that is a real concern for many people and one with which many student affairs administrators are familiar: some people have an unrealistic expectation of privacy when posting information on the Internet. Although this expectation is clearly unwarranted, those using social networking services to interact with or “reach” traditional college students should bear this expectation in mind. Even if the expectation is groundless, violating it wins no points with those who hold it.

(I don’t know how much and how quickly these expectations of privacy are changing. My feeling is that these expectations are, at least in the very public arenas where the expectations are clearly unwarranted, changing rapidly and are not held by most college-aged persons. However, I do not know if these realistic expectations extend to all Internet activity or just to the most visible ones. In other words, I don’t know if the general lack of privacy in most Internet transactions and activity is apparent to most people or if they limit that awareness to specific activities. My sense is the latter. In all honesty, I don’t even know if the original assumption that people expect “privacy” in all of their Internet activities is valid and proven, even among the young.  It seems reasonable but it’s an assumption.)

Putting together these discussions and observations one is led to the idea of context. Even those who hold realistic expectations of privacy and technology expect others to be cognizant of context and respectful when crossing contextual and social barriers. Fred Stutzman’s recent suggestions for using “Facebook as a Tool for Learning Engagement” repeatedly emphasize awareness of and respect for context. While Fred’s recommendations are aimed primarily at faculty they are just as applicable to and useful for student affairs and other administrators.

Finally, allow me to offer a few brief warnings. Some social networking services’ terms of service prohibit accounts that represent organizations instead of people. Among others, the University of Kentucky Libraries’ Facebook account was shut down several months ago as they were held to be in violation of Facebooks’ Terms of Use. In addition, some services may also claim ownership (copyright) of any material posted or uploaded to their service. Without discussing the legality of such claims, it is an issue of which one should be aware. The most prominent example of this particular issue is several years old but the issue lingers on.