The Perils and Prospects of Facebook

I’ve probably been using Facebook for about 9 months now. This was, in part, to see how our students were using it. I noticed only a sprinkling of our academics being on there but not showing too much in the way of any significant activity.

My Facebook ProfileFacebook is one of those “must-have killer apps” that is both fun and addictive. I can keep up to date with what my friends and colleagues are doing with the Twitter-like status messages; have a round of scrabble or even listening to Radio 2. Indeed, I can install any one of the plethora of mini applications that allow my Facebook profile to suit my tastes and interests (though I personally draw the line at the onslaught of pirates, ninjas, vampires, werewolves, zombies and teletubbies that get thrown in my immediate direction).

I was particularly impressed with the site when I created a group called “Learning Technologists Network“; the membership rose from 2 to 32 within a matter of days. I created the group with the hope of sharing and disseminating good practice in terms of learning technologies and pedagogies; as well as offering a forum for professionals to get together to discuss any issues or ideas with their immediate peers.

Now, I am using Facebook as part of my studies with the University of Edinburgh, though it is primarily a space to socialize and interact with my fellow learners. I have already learnt, just by reading some of their Facebook profiles, that two people on my course share an interest of mine, that of the pulp horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft. How weird is that?

Over the last year, I have been hearing from the soothsayers and the doom-merchants about the so-called “death of the VLE” and the rise of its’ heir apparent: the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). Whilst I am not entirely convinced that Facebook could become that PLE, it is not stopping the University of Wales in Newport for developing a Facebook applet based around their VLE. Whilst I am sure this would be a useful tool and service for the students, I do feel that Universities need to be sensitive and sensible to the whole issue of encroaching upon students personal digital space like the proverbial interferring parent. After all, it is “their space” and if social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook start getting taken over by Universities to supplant their VLEs, then I am afraid students will go elsewhere to preserve their identities, relationships and digital territories; leaving the Universities, once again, in the lurch.

Whilst Facebook has some powerful privacy features, some of the post 1982 “digital natives“, as Marc Prensky likes to call them, do not seem to be aware of how exposed they are to “digital predators” (vis-a-vis the US’ Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006) or even identity theft. The incident involving 200 youths gatecrashing a house and causing over £20,000 worth of damage after a party there had been advertised on MySpace is a classic example.

But, what really interests me at the moment about these social networking sites is the research conducted by Danah Boyd (2007) on “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace“. Boyd has this to say about the perceived nature of class divisions in America:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other ‘good’ kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, ‘burnouts’, ‘alternative kids’, ‘art fags’, punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

If this doesn’t smack of the so-called “digital divide“, then I don’t know what does. I think there would be a lot of interest in seeing what the UK perspective would look like and the kinds of results and issues that it could, potentially, show up.

References

Boyd, D., (2007). Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace [online]. Apophenia Blog Essay. Available at: http://www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html [Accessed 18 September 2007].

USA. GovTrack.us. H.R. 5319 109th Congress, (2006). Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 [online]. GovTrack.us (database of federal legislation) Available at: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h109-5319 [Accessed 18 September 2007].

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