HP Facebook Research: “Rhythms of social interaction”

Researchers at Hewlett-Packard have released a brief paper outlining some Facebook research entitled “Rhythms of social interaction: messaging within a massive online network.” They worked with a huge data sets: “headers of 362 million messages exchanged by 4.2 million users of Facebook…during a 26 month interval.” Wow! It’s a good paper and it’s relatively short (the main body is only 13 pages) – read it.

One finding of this research is, as the title suggests, the discovery of several consistent patterns of use on a daily or weekly basis. The patterns discovered by these researchers will not be a surprise to anyone who has worked with college students, particularly those in closest contact with them such as residence life staff. As a ResNet researcher, I would like to point out to readers that this kind of data is available at nearly every institution. If you want an extremely solid, reliable method of analyzing or discovering some of the patterns of your on-campus residents, ask your networking folks to analyze the network traffic in the residence halls. As the ResNet Coordinator at a medium-sized institution, I had direct access to this data and the patterns were clear. For example, it was pretty clear that many residents didn’t go to bed until between 2:00 and 4:00 am. That’s no surprise but the point is that I had data that supported that assertion. I don’t know of anyone who has really used that kind of data but I suspect there are a significant amount of data and implications for someone motivated and clever enough to analyze it.

Other interesting findings in this research:

  • The median number of “friends” was 144, a figure very much in line with previous research conducted by others. This is also close to the “magic number” of 150, a number sometimes cited as the maximum number of friends one can have (a number that was “discovered” in primate research).
  • Nearly half (41.6%) of the messages sent are to users in a school different from the user sending the message, a finding that supports the assertion that Facebook plays a larger role in maintaining previously-established social ties than in forming new ones.
  • An analysis of message and poke traffic shows that there appear to be two main patterns of use: Mid-Sunday through mid-Friday (weekdays) and mid-Friday through mid-Sunday (the weekend).
  • A comparison of the messaging habits of college students with those of employees in a large corporation shows that both groups exhibit different usage patterns on the weekend (and both groups define the “weekend” differently as noted above). But more importantly is that college students’ weekend pattern of usage still includes high usage of (Facebook) messaging whereas the corporate employees’ pattern does not. Or, as the researchers put it, “college students have a schedule in which they integrate computer use into most of their waking hours.”

There are, of course, other interesting findings in this paper. It is gratifying that there are no surprises in this paper. So far, we seem to be on the right track so far with respect to understanding students’ use of this tool. If only we could figure out how *we* should be using this tool…

Free Facebook Panel hosted by NCSU

North Carolina State University’s Division of Student Affairs has announced that they are hosting a panel discussing “The Facebook Phenomenon” on January 30, 2007. They will be webcasting the panel and attendance, real or virtual, is free. The will be five panelists, four of whom are from NCSU and one of whom is from UNC. I am unfamilar with three of the panelists but not the other two. One of the panelists, the only student on the panel, is Whil Piavis. Better known as the “Pirate Captain,” Piavis was elected student body president for the 2004-2005 with a large portion of his campaign conducted via Facebook. Another panelist, Fred Stutzman, is a Ph.D. student from UNC and one of the leading researchers of Facebook and college students’ use of it.

It’s free and it should be good. Register and find more information at http://www.ncsu.edu/facebook/.

Students’ technical know-how and distance ed preferences

Two relatively recent news items discuss college students’ technical know-how (actually, the report is more limited – more on that in a bit) and students’ and employers’ preferences for distance education.

First, ETS recently released preliminary findings from their new Information and Communication Technology Literacy Assessment. The results aren’t surprising for anyone who has followed information literacy trends: students fall short of information literacy expectations. Before I discuss the meat of the findings and implications, a few notes about how these results were presented. First, InsideHigherEd’s title for the article (“Are College Students Techno Idiots?“) discussing these findings is not only wrong but also unnecessarily inflammatory. “Technical know-how” is unrelated to “information literacy” and I expect those who claim to specialize in higher education issues to know the difference. I also understand that it’s their job to attract attention and readers but insulting our students is the wrong way to go about it. Second, while ETS did issue a press-release-like statement about their preliminary findings, their “additional info” document (the first link in this paragraph) is a pdf of a PowerPoint presentation. While I appreciate those that place their presentations online I hope this is just that – a presentation they conducted and are now sharing with us – rather than the “real” document. Others have discussed the inappropriate use of Powerpoint far better than I can so I’m going to move on.

There are at least two novel reasons I am interested in college students’ information literacy. First,I see strong and obvious connections between college students’ information literacy skills and their technical skills and knowledge (an ill-defined phrase if I ever saw one). There is also a strong connection between how many perceive college students’ information literacy and their tech skills and knowledge. In both cases, many seem to assume that because students know how to use the tools (Google, Word, Powerpoint, etc.) they know when to use them and appropriate uses for them. In my experience, many students’ knowledge of these tools is very superficial (and college students aren’t unique in this). Second, the growth of the information literacy movement and how its proponents have succeeded in moving this topic into the limelight can teach us all lessons about how to effectively advocate for something. What was once merely the concern of a few academic librarians is now a national issue. I don’t know all of the history behind this movement and the lessons it can teach us but what I do know fascinates me.

Second, Eduventures has released the results of a survey that claims to demonstrate that “more employers prefer online training to traditional classroom learning when it comes to college and university certificate programs for their workers.” I would post a link to the survey results but according to this Chronicle article it’s only available to subscribers (as is the Chronicle article – irony?). It’s impossible to comment on this survey or its results without more information. I understand the dilemma researchers face when figuring out how best to release their research results as it’s always a balance between access, resources, and ensuring the integrity of the research and those involved. Unfortunately, when research gets released via press release or news article and that’s the only way I can access it, I have to file it away in the “that’s interesting but unverifiable and thus unusable” pile. The claims made in the Chronicle article are very interesting but unfortunately without further details, particularly their methodology, they’re all irrelevant.

Recent copyright & fair use news

Three recent items related to the issues of copyright, fair use, and how colleges and universities deal with and relate to those issues have appeared lately.

The first item is a revision of a white paper released in 2003 entitled “Background Discussion of Copyright Law and Potential Liability for Students Engaged in P2P File Sharing on University Networks.” This paper is a work of the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities; other works by this group, including related congressional testimony, can be found on the American Association of Universities website; materials related to the technology task force are hosted by EDUCAUSE. The white paper is a 20 page document summarizing copyright and potential student and institutional liability for student copyright infringement. It’s a pretty good summary of a pretty dense, complex, and (for most people) uninteresting topic. Despite InsideHigherEd’s headline labeling this paper as one about “File Sharing” it actually focuses more on the possible effects of illicit file sharing than on the technology or other issues. What the paper does not do, except for one brief section at the very end, is give concrete policy guidance to colleges and universities on how to confront this challenge. I don’t necessarily fault the task force for not tackling that in this paper; it’s not the purpose of this paper (but it is the purpose of this paper). Further, it’s a pretty complex topic with little research underlying and supporting or refuting the possible solutions. Unfortunately, I don’t think many people want to hear that “it’s hard;” they want answers and concrete recommendations. This is especially true of our legislators.

Speaking of legislators: since the Democrats will control the next session of Congress they will be in charge of all of the committees and subcommittees. Of particular interest is the leadership and composition of the House Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property. The Democrats offer leadership to committees by seniority. So Howard Berman, representative of California’s 28 district, will have right of first refusal. As perhaps befitting one who represents many who work in or close to the film industry, he is a strong proponent of strong copyright laws and the rights of copyright holders. If he were to become chair of this subcommittee, the one that has taken the most interest in how universities and colleges respond to this challenge, I do not think he would be sympathetic. As our institutions are by nature slow to change, generally respectful of students’ rights and privacy (how many times have we told one another that “en loco parentis is dead!” ?), and extremely independent, we could be putting ourselves into a bad position with Rep. Berman as these traditional strengths could be viewed as resistance and refusal to act.

Finally, Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA, wrote a brief opinion piece for CNET News about the Consumer Electronics Association and other groups’ recently-announced “Digital Freedom” campaign. The title of the piece (“The farce behind ‘Digital Freedom'”) may have given some readers and those-who-don’t-want-to-read-a-Carey-piece a mistaken impression. I agree that Sherman’s organization has done and continues to do a lot of things wrong and significant and lasting damage to America through their actions and stances related to copyright. But his point in this particular article is completely valid: we, consumers and citizens, should be as cautious of those for-profit (and even the not-for-profit) organizations who wave the “Fair Use Banner” as we are of the large copyright holders. The “Digital Freedom” campaign is likely as much or more about meeting the financial needs of its members and sponsors as it is about protecting our rights. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is much too simplistic and naive to live by in real life, much less in politics.

Whither due process?

We’re all struggling with copyright infringment and our students’ changing views of and relationship with copyright. Although there are still some who have not made the necessary and proper investment in the equipment, training, and skills necessary to deal with most of the bandwidth issues (with a tiny handful throwing in the towel completely and outsourcing), most of us are doing okay except for the occasional blips and never-ending game of small-time “whack a mole.” Some (many?) have given up or never attempted to classify network traffic and instead give each resident a quota or percentage of the available bandwidth. Data on these particular practices are available but they’re not my focus today. The point is that the technical issues are largely black-and-white and most are solveable or already solved.

But the legal and ethical issues are unsolved and largely unsolveable. And I want to focus on one specific legal and ethical issue that I believe has been overlooked as colleges and universities have implemented their policies regarding and reactions to students’ alleged copyright infringement: due process.

Based on my experiences, interactions with others, and informal research, it appears to me that very few (if any) institutions afford their students due process when a student is accused of copyright infringement. I believe this stems from two phenomena:

  1. The actions that most institutions take when a student is accused, via a DMCA takedown notice, of copyright infringement are naturally motivated almost entirely or in large part because of the DMCA. Although some have tried to argue that the safe harbor provisions in the DMCA don’t really require institutions to do *anything*, I think most of us agree that the DMCA is pretty clear that we do have take some actions. However, few IT professionals are well-versed in the law (we even invented a well-used abbreviation to remind one another that “I Am Not A Lawyer”: IANAL). Even many of our legal counsels are not well-versed in copyright. I don’t blame either of those parties for not knowing the intricacies of this one branch of law but that lack of knowledge and familiarity engenders the most conservative of reactions and policies. It also encourages us to focus on this one issue without taking into account the larger context and history (because we don’t *know* the larger context or history – we’re unfamiliar with this, right?).
  2. At many institutions, these policies are crafted and enforcement takes place without meaningful (or *any*) input from student affairs administrators, including those familiar with similar legal or educational situations. In the specific case of copyright infringement, librarians or other professionals (at my current institution, our copyright “experts” work in Print Services where they help faculty obtain clearance for material to be used in course packets) may also be qualified to provide guidance. In short, although IT or ResNet may bear the brunt of this problem – see the traffic flow, receive the DMCA takedown notices, and track down the student associated with the reported IP address – there are many skills and areas of knowledge necessary to effectively and ethically confront this particular problem that IT professionals may not (and often do not) possess.

So what this usually results in is an automatic presumption of guilt for students who are named or whose computer is linked to a DMCA takedown notice. Nevermind the legal requirement that those who are accused of copyright infringement via a DMCA takedown notice must be affored the opportunity to file a counterclaim, a requirement that schools may or may not afford students or even inform them. The concern I have is that institutions do not afford students due process and assume they are guilty of copyright infringement merely because someone else has accused them of it. It doesn’t matter that most of the students *are* responsible for the alleged copyright (not “guilty;” this is often a civil issue – another complication to be addressed at a different time). Let’s also ignore the immense ethical and legal problems that many of these large copyright holders have encountered. Right now, I don’t even care that due process a legal principle with many years of history and significant case law. It’s an ethical imperative that we not assume our students are unethical or criminals based on the unchallenged word of an interested third-party.

If we take someone else’s word over our students with no investigation or affording our students any due process then we’ve already lost our students and failed to meet this challenge. Make no mistake – this is a much bigger issue than just songs and movies. But that’s where it has started and we meet this challenge one student at a time. If we treat them like automatically-guilty criminals then they’ll behave like criminals. How about we try treating them like adults, responsible for their own choices but also caught up in a much larger and morally ambigious situation? We have legal priniciples and guidelines to follow but we also have obligations as educators and mentors.