Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Instructors make “friends” on Facebook

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article last week on the difficulties academics face when using Facebook. While the article contained some good, commonsense advice about how instructors should interact with their students on the site, it also revealed how little understanding most instructors have of social networking culture.

Nancy Baym worries more about students’ expectations of her. A few weeks ago, a young man she did not know tried to friend her, says Ms. Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. The same student e-mailed her the next day, asking to get into a class that had a waiting list. He must have thought, “If she’s my friend, then she’ll let me into the class,” she says.

Young, female faculty members already struggle to be seen as authority figures, says Ms. Baym. It was easy to imagine what might happen: “But how could you have given me a D? You’re my friend on Facebook!”

Now, lots of people use Facebook, for lots of different reasons; however, I think it is highly unlikely that the unknown student friended her in order to enact the social code that Baym suggests: “If she’s my friend, then she’ll let me into the class.” I would guess that it is much more likely that the student perceived the interaction as an introduction, analogous to the student introducing himself to Baym at her office.

In short, I think Baym is making the mistake of thinking that being someone’s “friend” on Facebook is equal to being his or her “friend” in some other social context. I would be surprised if the average Facebook user expected (or demanded) the same commitments from his or her online “friends” as from offline ones.

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