Discussion about the phenomenon that is Facebook seems to be proliferating almost as fast as Facebook sites themselves. For months, mainstream and trade media have been discussing this latest and greatest social networking tool its merits, its dangers and how it’s changing everything from job searches to interpersonal dynamics. Students have been expelled and jobs lost over it; public sector employees have been forbidden to use it; marketers have trumpeted it as the next great frontier for reaching youth.
And every day, thousands of people at Memorial University log on to check out who’s doing what on Facebook. So what could the phenomenon mean for our campus community?
Facebook was created by Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg and launched from his dorm room in February 2004. According to the company’s online fact sheet, by the end of that year, Facebook had reached a million users; two years later there were 12 million. Although it was initially restricted only to university students, in September of 2006 the company opened up registration to everyone who had a valid e-mail address. (Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Zuckerberg and co-founder Dustin Moskovitz had ceased to be students themselves, leaving Harvard to run the company, based in Palo Alto, California, full time.)
In 2007, Facebook exploded, drawing an additional 100,000 new registrations daily. By June, the company was reporting 27 million active users, about 10 per cent of whom are in Canada. Canada, in fact, has the highest number of users outside the U.S.
That growth has been mimicked at Memorial. Last fall Amanda Stanley, an education student, was drawn into Facebook by her sister. When she discovered that Memorial didn’t have a group like other universities where students could meet, she created one and asked a few friends to join.
“There were six or seven of us in the first week, and then it grew to about 20 or 25,” she recalled of the early days of the Memorial University of Newfoundland group she still administers. “After Christmas, it was just like it caught fire. We watched the numbers grow every day until we got to about 4,000.”
As of June 22, there were 4,635 members.
While that first group was growing, other more specialized groups dozens, and then hundreds of them were also springing up around Memorial. After awhile, Ms. Stanley said the list of links grew so unwieldy she had to remove them all, leaving only a popular one a site where students can buy and sell used textbooks. She has since formed other, more focused groups, such as one where Education students can meet to talk.
Students gather on the group pages to offer each other advice (“you gotta have a bookbag...just not a first year bookbag blocked down with every textbook you picked up at the bookstore.”) and share information, most often about their favourite and least favourite professors.
Students also make great use of the “Invite Friends” feature. Invitations can be sent to large numbers of people with a click and recipients can pass the invitation along within their networks. Ms. Stanley noted that several groups are now using this to disseminate information about everything from mixers to orientation activities.
According to Youthography, a Canadian marketing and communications firm, Facebook is now one of the most-used sites in Canada only Google, MSN and Yahoo! draw more traffic and many believe that makes it a great forum for marketing to youth.
Memorial’s associate director of marketing, Michael Pickard, isn’t convinced. “Websites are the evolution of brochures, but I don’t think Facebook is ever going to be a traditional marketing tool, with us using it to tell students about Memorial. It’s not suited to that one-way flow of information.”
However in the few months that he’s been “Facebooking,” he has seen it prove very useful in drawing crowds to events.
“I see it as something that works very well as a viral tool, but I think it’s still a social tool,” he noted.
He suspects that students will only be critical of overt or worse, covert attempts to co-opt their networks with institutional pitches.
As a student, Ms. Stanley isn’t too worried about the intrusion of marketers into the pages of Facebook, however. “If it’s done right and done respectfully, then I think students will take to it. If it feels like propaganda, I think students will shoot it down pretty fast.”
For months, pundits have declared that grown-up intrusion into Facebook is sure to kill the fun for youth. And the demographic is aging: Facebook’s site reports that more than half of users are not post-secondary students, and that the fastest growth is for those 25 years and older.
But Ms. Stanley, for one, isn’t concerned about the sharing the cyberspace with her elders in fact, Facebook is how she keeps in touch with her grandmother in Labrador City.
“It’s a way for her to stay in touch with her grandchildren, and see what we’re up to, and it has a very visual aspect.”
For faculty, however, Dr. Ailsa Craig in Sociology thinks that Facebook’s ability to level the playing field can be a dangerous feature, complicating the relationship between faculty and students. She refuses to befriend her students on the site, and points to the ability to “poke” someone through Facebook: “One of the easiest things to do on Facebook is also inappropriate in some ways. But you don’t poke your professor!” she said.
As the popularity of Facebook and other social marketing sites has risen, so have concerns about just who is looking at the sites, and for what purpose. National news stories in Canada and around the globe are full of cautionary tales. For example, last winter, employees of Canadian grocery chain Farm Boy were fired for online comments they had made about the company. In the spring, a Toronto student was suspended from school for vitriolic Facebook posts about a school administrator.
And in March, online business network Viadeo reported that in a survey, one in five U.K. employers admitted to using Internet searches to vet job candidates and more than half of those said their view was influenced by what they came across.
But unlike earlier social networks such as MySpace, Facebook doesn’t make a user’s information available to everyone. Users can choose to activate built-in privacy settings that determine who can see their profiles; in its online fact sheet, Facebook says it has led the industry in providing making privacy a priority.
“The thing that Facebook offers is security. You have the option to be able to choose who sees your profile, and you have to confirm things before they [are posted],” said student Amanda Stanley.
However, Rosemary Smith, Memorial’s information access and privacy protection co-ordinator, said people still need to be wary. “The most important thing to remember is that online content never really dies,” she said in a recent interview with The Communicator, Memorial’s employee newsletter. “When using social network sites to put information online, you retain little control over it. Even adjusting privacy settings offered by these sites will not ensure that someone won’t copy and paste your information somewhere else.”
Of course it isn’t only students who need to think about who’s watching. Sociologist Dr. Ailsa Craig, worries that Facebook is as much a surveillance tool as a social networking tool, and that it could blur the line between teacher and student.
“I won’t ‘friend’ any of my students, not even grad students,” she explained. “Being a grad student is hard enough without thinking your supervisor can check up on you, and find out that you went out partying last night. By the same token, I want the freedom to be able to be goofy without my students having access. It’s hard enough [to command respect] as a young female faculty member.”
English professor Dr. Christopher Lockett does accept students as friends but that’s because he exercises a certain amount of circumspection. “I’m very conscious of what I put on there.”
Having his students see a different side of him through new media is not new to Dr. Lockett, who has published a personal blog since he came to Memorial last year. “I’m a virtual personality to my students anyway.”
Is Facebook an important new interpersonal communications tool or, as some fear, an insidious time waster that isolates people?
“There’s always a lot of anxiety when any new technology appears,” said Ivan Muzychka, associate director of communications. “People worry that it’s going to change social relationships.”
He remembers when the Internet arrived and spawned the same kind of concerns about lack of productivity and the diminishment of true human interaction. And he imagines the telephone’s arrival had a similar effect.
“The web has evolved and become very useful no one would question having the web in the workplace, or having a telephone on your desk,” he asserted, adding that time can be wasted surfing the web or making personal calls just as it can on Facebook. “But there are a number of university [Facebook] groups that are focused on work matters. It might be very advantageous for us to find ways to interact with this new technology.”
However, how people will use it remains to be seen. “At this stage, we’re still observing and studying, trying to understand how we might apply social networking to the official work of the university.”
And he does believe that Facebook or some new version of this social networking phenomenon is here to stay; fortunately, the anxiety it’s causing is not: “As this technology becomes ‘submerged’ into mainstream society as websites and e-mail have, the anxiety will drop off.”