ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting: Empirical Study of UMass-Amherst Undergrad’s Facebook Profiles

The first session I attended on Wednesday, the final day of the ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting, was entitled “Too Much Information? An Empirical Study of Undergraduate Facebook Profiles.” Daniel Saunders, Shaun Jamieson, and Jordan Hale outlined the results of research they have conducted at the University of Massachusetts-Amhrest.

These gentlemen examined the profiles of 464 UMass undergraduates in March of 2006 to answer questions like: What proportion of UMass undergraduates have a profile? How do those students differ from those without profiles? What proportion of UMass undergraduates with Facebook accounts post contact information? What proportion have positive references to the university? What proportion have positive references to partying, drugs, and alcohol? Some results of their research:

  • 82% of UMass-Amherst undergrads had Facebook profiles
  • Women were more likely to have a photo of themselves in their “central profile,” one or more photo albums, and more photos (women averaged 81 photos vs. 30 for men); however, men were more likely (21%) than women (8%) to list their phone number
  • On-campus residents were more likely (63%) than off-campus residents (23%) to post address information
  • Over half (58%) posted some or all of their class schedule
  • 7% had central profile photos with a clear photo of alcohol/drinking with White students (71%) more likely to have references to alcohol than students of color (49%) and women (73%) more likely to reference alcohol than men (61%)
  • Women had more positive references to UMass-Amherst (2.2 on average) than men (1.5 on average)

As you can see by the research questions and the statistics presented above, there are similarities to a few previous studies. In particular, Jones & Soltren’s 2005 “Facebook: Threats to Privacy” and Watson, Smith, & Driver’s 2006 “Alcohol, Sex and Illegal Activities: An Analysis of Selected Facebook Central Photos in Fifty States” studies explored some similar themes. Jones & Soltren explored the amount and type of information Facebook users shared on their profiles whereas Watson, Smith, & Driver specifically examined the central photos of Facebook profiles. Aside from the obvious differences, the methodology of this research differed from those studies primarily in that it concentrated on students at only one institution. Although the details vary, the general results of this research do not seem to substantially differ from those older studies. In particular, the number of students with clear photos of alcohol or other substances in their central profile photo remained low in this research although the greater proportion of women than men with such photos differed from the Watson, Smith, & Driver study.

There appear to be two interesting facets to this research:

  1. The demographic differences – men v. women and White v. students of color – were very interesting. That students of different genders use Facebook differently is no surprise as we already know there are differences in how men and women typically employ CMC tools. The differences between White students and students of color, however, is very interesting and an area that I do not know has been researched or examined thoroughly. During the discussion after the initial presentation, I raised the point that those differences may be attributable to not only race or ethnicity but also socioeconomic status. In other words, students who have had lots of access to the Internet and technology throughout their youth will have a level of comfort and familiarity that those whose access has primarily or exclusively been at school or in libraries do not have. And those students are disproportionately students of color. That’s a very tentative hypothesis and we need to know more about how students of different backgrounds use Facebook and other tools. Further, we should not ever assume that all incoming students or even students already enrolled have the same levels of knowledge, comfort, or access – Digital Divide, Participation Gap, etc.
  2. Although we talked about the positive uses for Facebook in other sessions, this is the only research I know of (as if I know of all of it!) that specifically looked for positive mentions in students’ profiles. Further, the presenters stressed that role of Facebook in how institutions’ images are presented and perceived by others. The connection between Facebook and campus attitudes (i.e. social norming) was obvious to me but I missed the connection with institutional image. I suspect I failed to make that seemingly-obvious connection as the medium is completely outside of our control unlike, for example, MySpace where institutions can register an account and control it.

Some other interesting points raised in discussion:

  • Has the self-disclosure practiced on (and inherent in) Facebook led to an increase in any negative incidents such as stalking, assault, etc.? Some attendees were of the opinion that harassment had increased but I know of no relevant research.
  • As discussed in other sessions, the boundaries (or lack thereof) between students and staff on Facebook were discussed. This appears to be more of an issue for graduate students and new professionals (possibly due simply to their much higher usage rates than older staff). Are we doing enough to educate these young staff members about this tool and how to negotiate this shifting boundary? I suspect that we are not doing enough but I have felt the same about other advances in technology that new professionals bring with them into the profession such as instant messaging. We should be dealing with these issues holistically and intentfully rather than reactively dealing with each particular technology two years after it has been in use.
  • One attendee reported on a very successful self-created social networking tool at his campus. There was even some talk on his campus of moving away from e-mail as the official means of communication and using the social networking tool instead.
  • Similar to the concern about how students (and others) are portraying our institutions in Facebook, there apparently are some (parents and other non-Facebook users?) who appear to confuse Facebook with an institutionally-controlled and -approved service (“Why did you let him say that about my son/daughter?”). Yikes! I wonder if that was covered in the “Online Parent Course” session that was being presented at the same time by the University of Redlands…