Contradictory Messages from Educators

I’ve slacked off updating this blog for the last month or so as I tackled finals and increasing demands at work. So I’m going to slide back into things here with an easy one…

While many elementary and high schools have banned cell phones, at least one university has made them mandatory in the name of safety. Montclair State University requires “Full-Time Freshmen and Transfers” to have a cellphone from the institution’s chosen provider, Rave Wireless Services. The WCBS article and video linked to above quote a price of $420 a year which includes “just 50 peak voice minutes a month, but unlimited text messaging to any carrier, unlimited campus-based data usage, and student activated emergency GPS tracking.” The newer reports focus on the GPS device tracking capability as a safety feature.

So some students who matriculate to Montclair will be coming from schools where they’ve been told that their phones are dangerous distractions to a new institution that proclaims cell phones to be so important to students’ safety that they are mandatory. I know that the situation is much more complicated: colleges and universities are much larger, have many more students, and have more mature students. But the apparent contradiction seems pretty confusing. I suspect that the simple, uncomplicated (and thus wrong) messages each side has attempted to portray (“They’re evil distractions!” “No, they’re necessary safety devices!”) is the root cause of this apparent contradiction.

It’s very easy for those of us who work in higher education to ignore or merely be ignorant of what our counterparts in elementary and high schools are doing. Those of us who study college students (a pseudo-discipline we have labeled “student development”) very easily and quite often fall into the trap that everything important that happens to people happens between the time they step foot on campus and leave campus after graduation. But our students come to us shaped by their experiences throughout primary school, secondary school, and other life experiences. How damaging is it to all of education and all educators when we contradict one another (“Social Networking Services are bad!” “No, they’re good!”) without attempting to resolve or explain those apparent contradictions? And how confused and disillusioned do we make our students?

New SNS Resources and Research: JCMC, OCLC, ENIAS, and Facebook Pages

Several new resources and articles focusing on social network services (SNSs) (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, etc.) have been recently published or released:

  • A special issue of the Journal for Computer-Mediated Communication (JCMC) focused on SNS edited by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison has finally been published. All of the articles are available online for free. Of particular interest to me are “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison and “Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites” by Eszter Hargittai. Hats off to danah and Nicole for pulling this together and seeing the project through to completion!
  • The Online Computer Library Center, better known as OCLC, released the 280-page document “Sharing, Privacy, and Trust in Our Networked World.” Although the report focuses in part on libraries and library directors, it also includes significant sections on (a) User practices and preferences on their favorite social spaces, (b) User attitudes about sharing and receiving information on social spaces, commercial sites, and library sites, and (c) Information privacy: what matters and what doesn’t. The research appears to be largely based on surveys of several thousand individuals from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
  • The European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) released the 36-page document “Security Issues and Recommendations for Online Social Networks” (1.8 MB pdf). Contributors to this document include many familiar names for those who have browsed my bibliography: Alessandro Acquisti, Fred Stutzman, Nicole Ellison, and Ralph Gross, among others. While the focus of this document (threats and recommendations) may be slightly different than that of interest to many of you, the perspective is very valuable and many of the issues identified will be familiar. Among the issues addressed are: difficulty of complete account deletion, SNS spam, profile-squatting and reputation slander through ID theft, stalking, and bullying.
  • Karine Joly discusses a new Facebook feature, Facebook Pages, in the context of institutions of higher education seeking to market their institutions and connect with their constituents. Although intended primarily for commercial marketing purposes, Joly sees utility in this tool for higher education. Personally, I am becoming wary and weary of marketing efforts, particularly as they continue to infiltrate our personal lives and spaces. I recognize that much of that infiltration is occurring simply due to the blurring of boundaries between our personal and private lives but that does not make my any more comfortable with some of these developments.  Nor am I comfortable with the commercialization of higher education despite my understanding of the economic and social forces driving it.

Current Student Affairs Technology Publications

Three very recent publications in student affairs literature discuss technology:

  1. I have a brief article in the current issue of Leadership Exchange, NASPA’s quarterly magazine for senior student affairs officers. The article is entitled “The Offline Challenges of Online Video” (which is a much better title than the one I had for it) and it’s in the Technology Center section. NASPA members can access entire volumes of Leadership Exchange via the NASPA website after logging in. For those who are not NASPA members, here is the article as it was submitted to the editor; it was substantially shortened and the references removed as befitting the type of publication and audience. We were hoping the article would serve as a small promotional or awareness piece for the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community but I think that link got lost in the editorial process.  It’s also worth noting that the article was written before the University of Florida “Don’t taze me bro!” incident that was captured and spread via YouTube.
  2. M. Leslie Sadle discusses Facebook in a NASPA NetResults article entitled “Freedom and Responsibility: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills to Facebook Users.” The article is available to NASPA member. If enough people express interest to the author, perhaps he or she will release it in a publicly-available location (when I last published a NetResults article, I was not asked to sign over copyright to NASPA).
  3. David M. Eberhardt also discusses Facebook in “Facing up to Facebook” in the current issue of AboutCampus. It’s an ACPA publication that is mailed to all ACPA members and I don’t know if it’s available online.

The problem I have with all three of these articles, including mine, is that they are descriptive and theoretical. We’ve been spending way too much time making predictions and theorizing and far too little time conducting the necessary research to see if our predictions and theories hold water. That’s the primary reason I quit my full-time job to return to school full-time and earn a PhD: to stop guessing and waving my hands in the air and start conducting research so I can start saying something with some level of assuredness. I acknowledge and embrace the necessary role played by these and similar articles but I have a burning desire and need to move beyond them to formal experimentation and observation. Now I just need to make the time, money, and patience to follow through…

Video Of And Materials From Social Networking Services Pre-conference Session

I’ve finally made the time to encode the video from a 3-hour pre-conference session I ran at this summer’s ResNet Symposium. Although the session was entitled “The Impact of Social Networking on ResNet Users,” it was broader than the title indicates (the title changed several times as the it was being put together).

In many ways, the session was a follow-up to and a successor to NCSU’s Facebook Phenomenon. Leslie Dare, my co-chair in the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community and the person as NCSU who hosted their event, told me that some of the feedback from attendees at their event asked for more “advanced” material and discussion. I watched their event as it was streamed live and I agreed with that feedback. So my session focused not on “introductory” topics such as “What is Facebook?” but assumed that knowledge. I hope that those who attended and participated in this session walked away with a foundation of knowledge that applies not only to today’s Facebook but to the SNSes of tomorrow.

The session was organized in three parts:

  1. Foundation and generalities (132 mb Windows Media Video file): Introduced the foundational concept of Web 2.0 (or at least the concept of user-generated content and greatly increased usability of web-based tools), a group activity to work towards a definition of “Social Networking Site,” an overview of some definitions used by scholars and researchers, boyd’s properties of SNSes and thesis regarding youth’s use of SNSes, and Suler’s Internet Disinhibition theory.
  2. Facebook (133 mb Windows Media Video file): Review of research about Facebook and users, including basic stats, how many undergrads use it, how often, numbers of friends (and relationship with Dunbar’s number), group activity to list some common uses of Facebook, and what the research says about uses of and motivations for using Facebook.
  3. Practical Implications and Practice (94 mb Windows Media Video file): Hodgepodge of issues and discussion including Digital Divide, Participation Gap, group activity about the use of SNSes in hiring decisions, how NYU addresses Facebook during orientation, institutional monitoring, and Facebook apps.

The PowerPoint file for the entire session is also available. In both the video and the PowerPoint, I removed the videos that were shown as part of the session. However, I’ve provided links to the videos (they’re all available online) so you can view them. I noted the removed videos and group activities in red text in the PowerPoint. I also added some notes to the presentation but obviously there is a whole lot more in the video. I also made an editorial decision to remove the group discussions as the participants were very candid and open and I am not comfortable sharing those conversations openly on the Internet; they knew that they were being filmed but I am not comfortable assuming they remembered that during some of our discussions.

I hope that someone will find these resources useful and interesting. In conjunction with the materials that NCSU provides on the Facebook Phenomenon website, these materials should provide one with a very solid foundation and understanding of how and why undergraduate students use SNSes, particularly Facebook, and how institutions can use these tools.

Thank you to Judi Rennie for inviting me to present this Professional Development Seminar. A special “thank you” goes to our hosts at UCSD, particularly Erik Strahm and Arianna Pilram, who helped find a room suitable for this session and a video camera to record it.

Updates on Old Topics and Quickies

I’m as settled into my new place and job as I will get so I hope to resume substantive posts soon. In the meantime, here are a few updates on topics previously discussed here and a few quickies:

  • Lawsuits against college and university students accused of downloading or sharing mp3s continue and institutions continue to ratchet up the stakes for students accused of copyright infringement. Are institutions really getting more strict about this issue or are those who are instituting harsh punishments simply the ones who attract the media reports? And are they doing it in part to attract those media reports (“Look, we’re trying to do something about this! Didn’t you read about it in the newspaper?”)? Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the issue from the MPAA, the EFF has released a report entitled “RIAA v. the People: Four Years Later” (pdf file).
  • Universities and colleges have often (and rightly) complained that most of the congressional attention regarding copyright infringement has unfairly focused on them. No worries. Some in Congress are eager to attempt to do foolish things to regular Internet Service Providers, too.
  • One of the threads in our recent discussion regarding Facebook advertisements has focused on a shared desire to more accurately target Facebook users. Either we’re starting to see progress on this front or there were developments of which we were previously unaware (likely both). Not only are there applications built to specifically address this issue, Facebook is working to build this into their own ad system.
  • Among the lessons learned from Virginia Tech are many related to communications and technology. In addition to Virginia Tech’s official overview, the Roanoke Times has an overview of Virginia Tech’s internal reviews. Of specific interest is the Information and Communications Infrastructure Group report (147 page pdf). The two main recommendations in the report are to (a) install a “new fully integrated digital campus architecture for all telecommunications functions based on Internet Protocol (IP)” and (b) “make selected research and administrative IT capabilities available to local first responders to improve radio communications capabilities.”

Facebook Flyers Worth It?

A few months ago, Valleywag posted a brief discussion of the supposedly dismal clickthrough rate of Facebook flyers: .04%. Clicktrough rate is a measure of the percentage of viewers/visitors that click on a particular ad or link and a .04% rate is indeed miserably low by most measures. For some reason, this discussion was noticed and discussed by a few more folks last month, including Fred Stutzman.

As is often the case with “research” discussed online, the methodology and other important details are not discussed in sufficient detail to evaluate the usefulness, applicability, and rigor of the research. In particular, I would like to know more about exactly what was being advertised. I would like to know this because I assert that services, items, and events advertised by colleges and universities differ significantly from those advertised by others. I would hope that not only would we know our students better than others but we also would be advertising things of particular interest to our students.

I recommend that institutions making use of Facebook flyers ensure that those using the flyers coordinate or, at a minimum, communicate amongst themselves. Not only are there the usual issues of consistency of message, appropriateness of tone, proper use of institutional marks (logos, graphics, etc.), and the other issues related to mass media advertising but a lack of communication may lower the effectiveness of the medium. In other words, if every department and student organization on campus is posting Facebook flyers with no quality control then students may simply phase them out much like they have e-mail spam and banner advertisements on webpages. I do not intend to make that (getting heterogenous groups to communicate or coordinate, particularly student organizations) sound easy and I suspect that on many campuses the “watering down” of Facebook flyers is already happening. However, I don’t know if many institutions would allow departments to advertise via mass media to every student and alumnus without any guidelines, approval, or minimal levels of communication and coordination.

Before I left Sewanee, we used Facebook flyers as part of our marketing campaign to advertise our Residential Computer Consultant (RCC) student employee openings. The campaign was a success despite the significant increases in the application requirements. We made many changes to our advertising process so it’s impossible to tell if the Facebook flyers played a huge role in the campaign but we did receive several positive comments from those students whom we interviewed, particularly those who were applying for the marketing/education position. Several of the students seemed to view our use of the flyers as indicative of our knowledge of and commitment to student culture and practices and at least one student liked that we had launched a coordinated campaign spanning multiple media. We did not measure the clickthrough rate but our impression was that the flyers were well worth their very low cost.

We also noticed one minor issue: my default Firefox settings with the AdBlock Plus plugin blocked the image we used on our flyer. If we had elected to host the image ourselves, this issue would have been avoided (and we could have also used the stats thus generated by our server hosting the image). We did not troubleshoot this extensively so I do not know if this problem is widespread.

ResNet Symposium Social Networking PDS Powerpoint

The room in which I will be presenting my Social Networking Services Professional Development Seminar (PDS) session tomorrow at the ResNet Symposium is less than perfect. To assist the attendees, I have made the presentation available here (minus the videos) so they can follow along on their own monitors.

I’ll post a proper follow-up to the PDS later tomorrow reflecting on lessons learned and interesting observations.

Update: I will not be posing a proper follow-up to my PDS session except to say that I very much enjoyed the experience and I think it was very well received. I greatly enjoyed and appreciated the interaction with and feedback from the participants. Other than that, I don’t know what else to say that would be appropriate to post in a public venue. I’ll provide an update once the class materials are uploaded and the video made available.

Impact of Anti-Social Networking Website Legislation on Higher Education

We’ve seen and are continuing to see attempts by state and federal legislators to restrict the use of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace on computers with Internet access funded by the (state or federal) government. Although DOPA was not passed into law last year, Sen. Stevens introduced a similar law earlier this year. State legislators in Connecticut and Illinois have introduced similar legislation.

I am neither a lawyer nor an experienced policy junkie so my understanding of the detailed specifics of these proposed laws is likely incomplete and possibly outright wrong in some areas. As best as I can tell from reading the bills and the media reports surrounding them, the federal bill, the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, requires that minors not be allowed to use computers with Internet access funded by the federal government (e-rate) to access “social networking websites” and “chat rooms” without parental permission. Connecticut’s law levies a $5,000 fine on social networking websites that fail to verify the age of participants and require parental permission for minors to participate. Illinois’ proposed law is the most stringent; it requires that “each public library must prohibit access to social networking websites on all computers made available to the public in the library [and] each public school must prohibit access to social networking websites on all computers made available to students in the school.”

As a university administrator, I wonder if we have paid enough attention to these and similar proposed laws to gauge their impact on our pre-matriculation programs. In other words, would these proposed laws have an impact on online orientation or similar programs that are aimed at applicants, interested high school students, and other minors? The answer seems to be a clear “yes” for those institutions whose programs have taken on characteristics of social networking. However, the precise definition of “social networking website” has yet to be crafted; for the federal law, it will take into account if the service:

  • is offered by a commercial entity
  • permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information
  • permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users
  • elicits highly-personalized information from users
  • enables communication among users

For some of the proposed bills, requiring that the users supply proof of their age and secure parental permission for minors to participate would satisfy the legislative requirements. That seems like a low bar for colleges and universities, particularly if the users are those who have already applied to the institution and thus already supplied proof of age; it’s only one more bullet point on the application form signed by the applicant and, if necessary, mom or dad. Of course, this completely dodges the question of how the laws would actually be enforced in libraries and schools, how easy it will be to overcome the necessary technological filters and restrictions, what evidence would be necessary for librarians or teachers to allow minors to access social networking sites, etc.

The primary concern of many who perform research into youths’ use of social networking sites is the disparate impact this legislation would have on youths whose primary Internet access occurs at school or the library. That concern should hold true for college and university administrators as this proposed legislation would have a negative and disproportionate impact on prospective students with a low SES. It seems to me that this legislation may strengthen continued concerns about the widening SES gap in America between those attend college and those who do not. Further, this proposed legislation may harm efforts to attract students with low SES and help them fit into the college environment in that crucial first year.

Colleges and universities must monitor this area of legislation. Not only does it impact current and developing programs such as online orientation programs and cutting edge recruiting efforts, it may intertwine with the continued debates about widening SES gaps and efforts to shrink those gaps.

Virginia Tech: Making Meaning of This Tragedy Online

There are many academically interesting aspects of the uses to which online tools are being put as students and professionals struggle to make meaning of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech.

The most visible aspect, one already noted in the popular media, is the use of social networking tools like Facebook and MySpace. Students, alumni, professionals, and others are using these tools to:

  1. Communicate with one another. This use was most visible and common during and immediately after the shootings as students updated their online profiles to let others know they were alive (I almost typed “okay” but that is clearly the wrong word).
  2. Publicly grieve and memorialize the slain. Others have discussed this usage of social networking sites; some time ago, Facebook apparently had to modify their policies to take into account this unexpected behavior.
  3. Make meaning of these events. Of course, this use is intimately tied to and intertwined with the previous use.

Let’s take a closer look at the most obvious example of this search for meaning using online social networking tools: the rapid development of the Wikipedia article. The article was initially created at 10:16 on Monday morning and has rapidly grown since. As of 20:58 CDT on Thursday evening there have been over 6300 edits to the article with each edit occurring 47 seconds apart on average. 1865 different editors have edited the article; 507 of those editors were anonymous, unregistered editors. A quick and thoroughly unscientific review of the edits seems to indicate that just over 10% of the edits, around 650 or so, were acts of vandalism or removal of vandalism.

A video of the article evolving during the first 12 hours:

Our interest lies in how people are using this collaboratively created encyclopedia article in the search for meaning. First, it’s important to remember that like everything else, these actions are taking place in a particular context. In this case, the context is that of a collaboration that aspires to create encyclopedia articles. For those who are unfamiliar with the inner workings of Wikipedia, suffice it to say that the scale, nature, and goals of the projects have led to the development of a maze of rules, policies, guidelines, cultural norms, and formal and informal expectations of user behavior and product quality. Examples of these forces include Civility, Neutral Point of View, No Original Research, and Verifiability. But even within those bounds users have great latitude in constructing articles, particularly brand new articles.

The most visible and easily traced activity is the process by which the name of the article was decided, challenged, and changed (several times). Even with the guidance of the Wikipedia Manual of Style, there were still many minor decisions to make about the title regarding the possible inclusion of the year “2007,” word order, capitalization, etc. However, the major decision was to use the word “shooting” or “massacre” to describe the events. Although the decision to adopt “massacre” was ostensibly made as a reflection of the media coverage (the “common name“), many of the initial (and ongoing; very few things are ever settled or beyond debate and discussion in Wikipedia) arguments were clearly subjective judgments about the unfolding events and details.

The choice of details to include or exclude in the article also reflect not only Wikipedia policies but the judgment of more than 1300 individual editors. Wikipedia’s notability guidelines provide some guidance but the ultimate decisions lie with those editors. For example, do the questions and arguments about gun control raised by this tragedy belong in this article? What about the various offers of assistance from other universities – if only some of them are to be included (as it would be impossible to include them all), which ones are “notable” enough to make the cut? What about the victims – are they inherently notable and should they each have their own article? Or would such articles be memorials and thus unenyclopedic (many editors argue that “Wikipedia is not a memorial.”)? How can we place these events into historical context? Do we rank school shootings and tragedies or is a historical comparison inappropriate and impossible? And how many of these issues can and should we decide right now given the incomplete facts and high emotions? Many of these questions are clearly fundamental questions in making meaning of these events, even if they are wrapped in the guise of creating an encyclopedia article and guided by Wikipedia rules and customs.

Let’s briefly return to Facebook and MySpace. The positive and supportive uses of these tools (communication, grief sharing, support, etc.) are being widely documented. Not as widely documented, though, are the expressions of negative emotions like anger and hatred. A quick search turns up the following public Facebook groups, all featuring a prominent photo of the shooter:

Although such expressions are understandable and a natural part of the grieving process, I am a bit concerned about the permanent nature of the electronic media being used to document negative but (hopefully!) temporary emotions. Given that these records are publicly accessible, archivable, replicable, and searchable, I hope that others who view these groups and other similar expressions of negative emotion (including the members themselves) will keep in mind these factors that make transient expressions of emotion take on a permanent nature in this context (and when removed from this context).

Of course, there are those who are exploiting this tragedy via online tools. For example, an a Facebook group entitled “UWF praying for Virginia Tech 4.16.2007,” a user took the opportunity to push her own group and political agenda:

Facebook VT UWF message

That’s classy, huh? At least she’s not trying to directly profit from this tragedy like these scum.

Let’s end on a positive note. Like others, I deal with tragedy by trying to learn from it. Karine Joly evidently feels the same way because she has been writing about the lessons administrators, particularly those in communications, can learn from these events. It’s probably a bit too early for some to step back from these events to objectively analyze our reactions to learn from them. But when you’re ready, Karine’s got some good advice to share.

(Update: Wikipedia stats updated on Thursday, April 19, at 21:15 CDT, mostly to reflect a more accurate calculation of the average time between edits – I found the setting that allows me to view the exact second that edits were made which obviously allow a much more precise calculation)

(Update 2: YouTube video added. First seen (by me) on the Wikipedia article’s Talk page.)

More Facebook Recommendations and Thoughts

After attending so many sessions about and related to Facebook at last week’s ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting, I’m a bit burned out on the topic and trying to take a break from it. However, I’m teaching/facilitating a 3-hour session on social networking this summer at the ResNet Symposium so I can’t afford to get away from the topic for too long.

In the meantime, here’s what some others have recently said about this topic:

  • Attorneys Sheldon Steinbach and Lynn Deavers shared their legally-informed thoughts about university policies about and related to Facebook, MySpace, and other sites at InsideHigherEd. Their analysis is thoughtful and offers a critical insight into some of the legal considerations that may escape or elude non-lawyers. In particular, some of their analysis focuses on the legal concept of the “duty of care” that is established when a published policy is specific enough to establish expectations on the part of campus constituents.
  • Fred Stutzman once again shares his views and advice for higher education. If you haven’t read Stutzman’s works, you should; some of it is specifically aimed at educators.
  • An article written by Karine Joly in the current issue of University Business discusses social networking tools and the various uses to which institutions are putting those tools. The anecdotes and examples are particularly interesting and should give you food for thought.
  • An article in Knowledge@Wharton (free registration required – sorry!) not only discusses some of the basic issues surrounding Facebook and other social networking sites but also the long-term viability of these sites and the issue of exclusive membership and the role of membership. This discussion is particularly relevant for those who have created or are considering creating their own site with limited or exclusive membership; some institutions have already done so with success.