Discussion of and Reactions to NCSU’s “The Facebook Phenomenon”

Yesterday’s “The Facebook Phenomenon” panel discussion presented by North Carolina State University was fantastic! The webcast and related materials are available online for those who missed it. They’ve also started a Facebook group sharing the name of the discussion for those interested in continuing the discussion in Facebook itself.

The discussion and the supporting materials were excellently organized and we should all thank NCSU staff for their generous work in providing this professional development opportunity. The discussion was good and the question-and-answer session was great. However, I was a bit disappointed by some of the answers (or lack thereof). On one hand, I (like many others, I am sure) was hoping that the panel would have answers to all of our questions; they didn’t. On the other hand, it’s comforting (and a tiny bit disappointing) that we’re all searching for answers and almost all of us are in the same place. That the panelists could not answer many questions posed is not indicative of ignorance on the part of the panelists. They were asked tough questions about an emerging phenomenon and I don’t think that anyone could have answered many of the questions.

The most disappointing aspect of the panel was the consistent reference to personal anecdotes without sufficient reference to applicable research. I offer this criticism as a student affairs professional looking inward at his own profession and thus this criticism is aimed less at this particular panel or its participants and more at the profession as a whole. Fred Stutzman, of course, had his own research to draw upon but even much of that has been limited to the students at his institution. The one specific reference I recall to more wide-ranging research was Sarah Noell’s reference to a Pew Internet & American Life Project study of teen Internet use. As I’ve discussed before, there appears to be a real need to bridge the gap between researchers who are active in this field and student affairs practitioners and administrators. It’s great that many people were introduced to Fred’s research but what about boyd, Ellison, and other researchers’ work in this and very closely related fields? (I note that the list of resources on NCSU’s website is still growing; they appear to be finding more of this work and posting links to it which is great!)

The administrators on the panel didn’t seem to speak much about the ethics of administrators viewing Facebook profiles. They certainly have the legal right but they seemed to completely brush off ethical and privacy concerns. Such an apparently casual dismissal of a very serious concern in the minds of many students seems to be a bit callous and out-of-touch with student culture. It’s a difficult subject that merits more consideration and a more considered and sensitive approach than “we’re legally allowed to do it and that’s that.”

There also appeared to be an unchallenged assumption that 95%+ student are using Facebook. Although Fred’s research supports that finding for the groups he has studied, other studies have found lower rates of participation. In particular, the ECAR’s 2006 Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, which surveyed nearly 29,000 students at 96 different institutions, found that “more than 70% [of respondents] use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.” Since there appears to be a significant range in the research, uncritical acceptance of one set of findings strikes me as a bit odd.

As noted by Sarah Stein, institutional policies should encompass students, faculty, and staff. Although that sounds obvious, it’s a point that I tend to forget or gloss over. Each of these constituents has a different purpose for wanting to use and interact with others using Facebook and similar services. While I’m sure that there are similarities between these groups’ uses and intents there are obviously many differences, not the least of which are the different legal and ethical issues involved. For example, some of the panelists briefly discussed FERPA and the difference between institutions posting students’ personal information on Facebook (as apparently happened when a professor tried to place some course-related materials on Facebook) and students posting their own personal information.

Some specific reactions to or notes about the panelists’ opening remarks (I am omitting Fred Stutzman as I have referenced and will certainly continue to write about his work; his opening remarks were a summary of his work):

  • Sarah Noell expects Facebook to develop increasing granularity in its privacy controls in the future as it “matures.” I think that is a valid opinion and I expect that Facebook will continue to explore that area but I don’t know if it will yield much fruit; increased granularity would significantly increase complexity. At a certain point, and I don’t know where that tipping point is, the complexity of a tool outweighs its functionality. Privacy controls in a system that attempts to mimic or match offline social interactions, boundaries, contexts, etc. can very quickly grow too complex to be understood or used.
  • Paul Cousins seemed to indicate that he believes that Facebook is used primarily to forge new connections. I could be mistaken in my understanding of his perception but I have encountered that perception in other student affairs professionals. This perception is counter to some research (Ellison and Vanden Boogart jump to mind) that shows that Facebook is typically used to reinforce existing relationships. This point was one to which panelists returned a few times so I don’t know exactly how closely the perceptions match the published research.
  • Sarah Stein mentioned ETS’ new Information and Communication Technology Literacy Assessment as evidence of students’ lack of technical and information literacy. While I agree with her general point, I’m not sure that ETS’ test is the best evidence as its methodology was soundly and fairly criticized. Dr. Stein also mentioned GIS and the integration of spatial location with social networking as a future development but did not mention the obvious (to me) privacy concerns raised by such integration. Another panelist (Fred, I think) mentioned that MIT is already actively exploring this concept.
  • Whil Plavis, the lone student on the panel, briefly discussed students who choose to protect their privacy by not using Facebook. Dr. Stein later echoed this sentiment by reminding the audience that there are and always will be people who opt out of such systems.

In my opinion, the lengthy question and answer that followed the opening remarks was the most informative and enjoyable part of the discussion. The organizers of the panel very wisely chose to allot the majority of the time to this portion of the discussion and were very adept at alternating between questions from the local, physical audience and the virtual audience.

Some of the questions included:

  • Are there (legal) discrimination issues if potential employers view someone’s profile early in the hiring process? I don’t think any panelist offered a good answer to this question. In their defense, it’s really a specific legal question and I am not sure if any of the panelists were qualified to speak about laws related to employment and discrimination. It’s a great question and definitely the kind of question we should be asking ourselves and one another!
  • A concerned parent in audience who regularly “checks out” her daughter’s online information (which is exactly what she should be doing and what many parents are not doing) asked: Are local public schools conducting education in this area? Sarah Stein replied “I don’t know” but that we should find out. She went on to stress that we should “stop making assumptions” about others’ technical literacy, an excellent point that I wish more people understood and proselytized
  • Another concerned mother asked: Do students who post personal and potentially dangerous information about location receive encouragement or discouragement from their friends? Whil responded that yes, there is some peer pressure associated with Facebook and personal information posted on it. He illustrated this with an anecdote about his younger brother whom Whil cautioned to “tone down” the personal information shared on his Facebook account.
  • A psychologist concerned with the level of personal contact that can achieved online asked: Are we losing skills in “[interpersonal relationships]?” Sarah Stein replied that previous and ongoing CMC research does not support such a conclusion. She also discussed a notion of “blended lives” that has persisted for many years where we our social lives are a mix of relationships and interactions conducted via many media. Whil noted that his profile is not for advertising to people but it’s there for those who want to find it. With respect to losing interpersonal skills, Whil noted that students often use Facebook as a convenient way to setup meetings and events.
  • Leslie Dare, the panel moderator, noted that Facebook privacy settings must be set by the user. Sarah Noell then asked, “Who is educating people about those features?”
  • What’s the future of Facebook? Is it a fad? Are we (universities) properly equipped to deal with it? Sarah Stein opined that Facebook might not stick around but social networking will. Fred agreed that Facebook might not stay but social networks will as they provide “high utility” and a “time saver tool.”
  • Are there long term issues about boundaries? Personal vs. impersonal vs. too much information (TMI)? Sarah Stein noted that this isn’t a new concern. Paul, however, countered that he believes that students are exchanging “intimacy for efficiency.” Fred parried with an assertion that we are social beings and he doesn’t worry about us losing our social networks. For example, Facebook connections are usually initiated offline. Leslie noted that some use Facebook to express and share grief
  • How do we educate parents about the risks? Sarah Noell indicated that NCSU did not mention this topic in the previous parent orientation but that information is on their website. It’s a difficult topic to address since many parents don’t know anything about it. Sarah Stein shared her hope that the presentation and education will be balanced (positive and negative) like this panel discussion.