This week’s teaching focus is on the social networking site facebook. For today’s undergraduate college and university students, social networking and connectivity essentially equal maintaining a relationship with every person you have ever met, wherein you are only ever one click, chat window, text message, or phone call away from being in touch with one another*. Facebook is a social networking site where users can share personal photos, interests, and messages. Facebook is now so widely used that this week it proudly announced reaching 150 million users worldwide.**
Five years ago, facebook’s initial users were college students. Today, the site is utilized by people of all ages and on all continents (yes, even Antarctica). After noticing my own students using it last year, I was interested, but not enough to actually open up my own account. What finally caused me to sign up was the notice I received from facebook, telling me that my 60-something second cousin wanted to “add me as a friend.”
With my initial intent being only to dabble and humor my cousin, I went to facebook, opened an account, uploaded a profile photo, and entered in where I went to high school and college. Instantly, I was able to reconnect with old classmates I’d lost touch with since, oh, sometime before email was in common use. I also looked up current colleagues and former students and added them to my friends list. Here’s where using facebook as professor begins to touch on what I, and other colleagues I’ve discussed this with, consider an ethical gray area.
Facebook’s purpose to its users is “social networking,” but often, its real use is socializing. That’s where the gray area comes in. Generally, my colleagues and I don’t spend time in our off hours with our students, interacting in a social setting. We keep our personal lives separate from our work lives, essentially. On facebook, users in our friends lists can see as much or as little information on our profiles as we choose to share, and that information sharing can be tailored on a case by case basis. The challenge for me initially, was how to use facebook like a normal person, socializing, sharing photos of family vacations, and day to day woes and successes on my status updates, without crossing professional boundaries with my students who were in my friends list.
With time, the friend requests from current and former students continued to come rolling in and it became apparent that some organizational changes had to be made on my part. The end solution? Creating two facebook accounts, and essentially splitting my facebook identity two ways: One account for posting the family vacation photos and chatting with friends; a second account for posting, among other things, only the vacation photos that are relevant to what I teach (photos from museum exhibitions, for example), and for running the fashion majors’ alumni group for my institution, of which I am also a proud member.
Having two facebook profiles does mean I have to log in twice when I want to use facebook, but it also means that I am only ever one click away from contact with a colleague or former student. It’s an invaluable resource for maintaining an alumni network and securing guest speakers to come to my classes, and sometimes I even get requests for career advice from former students, giving me the opportunity to mentor them in their careers, one of the great joys of teaching.
Opening up my “public” profile for keeping up with my students was also an ideal way to open a recent discussion in my classroom about the nature of facebook and how it is perceived by older users (and non-users). Increasingly, the media touch on how recruiters and human resources professionals google job candidates and check their facebook and myspace profiles when making a hiring decision.
The second issue in my classroom discussion was not only what my students can see on my profile, but what I, as a member of their friends lists, can see on their profiles. It seemed worthwhile to remind them that they should be mindful of what they have on their profiles and in their online photo albums, if they want to have me on their friends list. As I gently recommended, emailing me to say they’d been terribly sick on the day of a midterm and wanted a make-up exam, when their facebook status said they’d had a wild night out, would not be wise.
Lauren Michel is Worn Through’s newest contributor. She teaches in the Fashion program at Monterey Peninsula College, a two-year college in Northern California that prepares first- and second-year students for transfer to university. You can read her blog at LaurenMichel.com, and yes, you may add her to your facebook friends list.