Inspired by Rejection? Or Merely an Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Like several hundred other ACPA and NASPA members, I submitted a program proposal for the upcoming Joint Meeting. Like many other programs, the main topic of my proposed program was Facebook. My program specifically centered on two points:

  1. Introduction and discussion of relevant historical and contemporary computer-mediated communications (CMC) research. This is important not only to bring home the point that this emerging phenomenon is not as new or emerging as many people think it is (relevant research has been conducted for several decades) but also to illuminate particular findings of interest to student affairs practitioners.
  2. Discussion of proposed linkages between CMC research and student development theory.

In September, NASPA published a paper (article only available there to NASPA members; download it from my website here) that I wrote several months ago in their e-zine NetResults. In this paper, I laid out thoughts rem,similar to the ones I was proposing to layout and expand in this program. I’m pretty confident that my thoughts are important, original, and significantly contribute to the community and its understanding of this perceived new challenge.

My program proposal was rejected. Although I am stung by this rejection, it’s not so much the rejection that bothers me. My primary concern is that there was consideration given for balance, diversity, and creativity in those programs that were approved. I reviewed programs this year and I don’t recall any of the programs that I reviewed as being heavily based in theory; to the contrary, the programs I remember reviewing were heavily based in recent experiences with some including only a token mention of theory or relevant scholarship. I also know another person whose *incredibly cool* theory- and original research-based technology proposal was also rejected. These scant (!) data points combined with my own experiences are enough to make me start wondering about the value that these professional organizations place on original research and theoretical constructs that are related to technology.

Eric Stoller echoes some of my thoughts in a blog entry in which he writes: “Can someone please inform ACPA and NASPA that technology is not an ’emerging discussion.’ It is this kind of language which causes student affairs administrators to remain stuck in 1995.” In another entry he discusses an online professional development course he (accurately, judging from the description) labels a “fear session.” His question “Why do we not think holistically about technology?” is a fantastic question that I believe most have at best ignored and at worst disdained. Eric is presenting a session at a two-day professional development opportunity in January but judging by the titles of some of the other sessions (“Virtual Affliction: Understand the Power and Addiction to the Internet” and “Crossing the Line Online: How Cybersex, Cyberaffairs, and Pornography live in the shadows of the Net”) it’s clear that we have a lot more work ahead of this to counterbalance these fear sessions.

I know there’s a lot of interest in the student affairs world in practical experiences and discussions but I really think we can (and in many ways are working to) back ourselves into a corner unless we remain open to wider viewpoints. We owe it to those who have come before us to apply what they discovered to emerging phenomena. Consciously and deliberately applying these old theories to new phenomema and situations allows us to measure what we know of new phenomena using measuring sticks of known length. Further, it allows us the unique opportunity to reevaluate our assumed and received knowledge and, as appropriate, build on and modify that knowledge.

I assert that, like nearly everyone else, our viewpoint is rather narrow. What we view as emerging and new phenomena are rarely as emerging or new as we may believe. Most are, like all other inventions or innovations, built on earlier works. And guess what? There are pretty good odds that several people have conducted significant and insightful research focused on those earlier works! The works and insights by danah boyd, Fred Stutzman, Nicole Ellison, and others did not spring forth from their head fully-formed and -armed like Athena from Zeus; like other scholars, they have built on what has come before them (the “References,” footnotes, and endnotes ain’t there to pad their papers!).

And that’s all I want to do: build on what others have built before me. Those others may not necessarily be or have been student affairs practitioners, student development researchers, or higher education scholars. Some are psychologists, sociologists, or IT practitioners. Some ply their craft in communications, new media, informatics, or information science. But they’ve all discovered and proposed insights that can help us understand what are to us “emerging phenomenon” because to them it’s old hat and merely the next step in an evolution they’ve been tracking for a long time. We, in turn, can contribute our hard-earned understanding of young people and the pervasive culture of higher education to view their findings in the unique lens of our own education and experiences.

If this sounds like a deep insight or a desperate plea to link these disparate fields, it’s not. It’s merely an idea whose time has come. Some are undoubtedly already doing it. Some have already done it. If they’re out there, I want to find and join them – it sounds like a lot of fun!

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/.