Should higher ed institutions use social networking websites? Answers from Fred Stutzman, Facebook expert

April 9th, 2007 Karine Joly 2 Comments

Earlier this year, I conducted several email interviews to prepare my column about social networking websites for the April 2007 issue of University Business: “Facebook, MySpace, and Co.”

Fred Stutzman, a Ph.D. student in Information Science at UNC, is a recognized expert in social networking websites who also blogs at Unit Structure. After reading Fred’s post titled “How University Administrators Should Approach the Facebook: Ten Rules,” I knew I had to interview him.

1) Do you think higher ed institutions could use Facebook and other social networking websites as communication channels to reach prospective and current students?

Indeed. I think social networks, particularly the Facebook, are key media through which students can be engaged. In a sense, Facebook represents a space in which conversation can occur where the playing field is leveled – students and Faculty/Administrators are equals. Of course, this sort of engagement only works to a certain extent – the sharing of casual information, messages, listing of events, etc., but that sort of social engagement is valuable on campus. Put simply, the relationship that exists between students and their superiors shouldn’t just be authoritarian. Part of college is building successful relationships with those in power, and the humanizing aspect of communication in a space like Facebook goes a long way.

With regards to prospective students, the conversation between high schoolers on the Facebook and students/admissions staff at the University could also be very valuable. It seems like colleges should be recruiting students to be “ambassadors” on the Facebook. The type of conversation enabled in the context of the Facebook would be very useful for engaging potential applicants.

2) How should they approach these new communication spaces?

Carefully, and without a heavy hand. A space like the Facebook will always be useful for certain things – not everything. Casual messages, engagement, campus notices are perfect message vehicles for the Facebook.
Of course, due to rules and regulations things like important messages, academic information – this must never cross into the Facebook. However, since the students do spend so much time on Facebook, it is useful for groups, extracurricular activities, religious organizations, etc to reach out to potential new members (and existing members) through this medium.
Put pretty simply, the Facebook is like a virtual space where lots of students congregate and base their social lives. It would make sense to engage students in the middle of this space, rather than some other place where they don’t hang out. I think a lot of colleges see this and forward-thinking faculty, staff and administrators are going where their students are.

3) What should they avoid at all cost?

One must take the Facebook for what it is. It is a third-party, for-profit enterprise. It is not a public service, it is not a utility. There are no guarantees what may happen to the Facebook, who may buy it, or what may happen with its data. Colleges must keep this in mind before they base any strategy too squarely in the Facebook. The Facebook is the virtual mall – and colleges must remember their control only extends to a certain extent over the “public” space.

2 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    I think we need to be cognizant of the status that we bring into social spaces. For instance, I’d feel uncomfortable if I received a Facebook wall post from, say, the university provost. In this hypothetical case, the provost has brought their conferred status/authority with them into Facebook. I think the student would consider it strange that the provost was intruding on what they consider to be intimate social space.

    University-sponsored Facebook groups, however, are good vehicles for the casual messages and campus notices that Stutzman refers to the interview.

  2. Peter says:

    I’m with Rob – The fundamental reason that Facebook is so popular is that it is a network of peers ….. anyone else is an “intruder” as Rob puts it – This is a safe container and the last thing a student wants is the school trying to hijack the agenda.

    On the subject of so called ambassadors from the school …. I’d prefer to talk to a fellow student to get an authentic view of the real world as it exists behind the billboards and admissions “sales” agents. Students propped up by a school as ambassadors are usually doing so for some type of incentive that hardly makes them impartial. Facebook on the other hand allows me to get a warts and all perspective, something that most schools are terrified we see.

Got a question or comment?