For years, I resisted college officials' interaction with students on Facebook with a fervency that belied by my age (early 30s, thank you), my generation status (late Generation X, early Millennial) and my own personal embrace of all things social media (friend me!). My belief was that the online waters were just too murky.
Are students' posts and representations of themselves fact, fabrication, or something in between? Do administrators, by accessing student content on Facebook, risk learning too much? Does their 'real world' responsibility to respond to a judicial violation or concern for a student's welfare extend to what can be read or perceived in students' posts? Can appropriate boundaries between administrators and students effectively be maintained when we are 'friending,' 'liking,' and, god forbid, 'poking' each other?
The fatal flaw in my Facebook rebellion was found where it is always can be found: the students. Turns out, my aversion to using Facebook professionally didn't stop students from going there. In droves.
Of particular note was the large number of incoming students setting up a Facebook page for them to make introductions during the summer before they arrived on campus. As a college, we tried to encourage students to use our internal webboard for this purpose, our official place of information dissemination. Then they stopped using our internal webboard (even though it was official!) and my Facebook resistance crumbled and crumbled quickly.
The goal at that point became threefold: to get out in front of students, to set up our own Facebook page for the incoming class, and to exert some measure of control. Yes, yes and, holy cow, no. Here's where we are struggling:
We need a disclaimer. There must be some way to dump a truckload of grains of salt on our students' use of Facebook, but I fear no matter how many warnings we put out there, the ease and allure of posting too much personal information that might be better kept private is too much for many students to resist. I have seen this fail to an epic degree. I have seen incoming students post hourly (sometimes more) during the summer, only to be shunned when he or she arrives on campus as their peers had already developed an intractable assessment about the user. I have seen incoming students bound over to their new best friends and embrace them, only to be pushed away as that friendship is a very different thing eye-to-eye as it is pixel-to-pixel. I'm just not sure that, "Warning -- reserve all judgment until you actually meet" is going to make a difference.
We need to address the returning vs. incoming student ratio. As the incoming class will never outnumber the rest of the student population, it was to be expected that there would be a greater number of the latter on the page. But then it got out of hand and returning students outnumbered new ones 9-1 (as opposed to the actual ratio of 3-1). It felt like every returning student wanted their voice to be heard, to be seen as an authority on campus life, to be a friend-in-waiting. The presence of returning students on a welcome page is crucial, but we need to figure out how to make it feel a bit less desperate.
Administrators need training. Lo and behold, my initial reservations about Facebook were valid. We don't know what to make of some of these incoming students (administrators develop opinions based on content too!), we are seeing posts that cause some concern (Yes, I know you're 18 in that pic...), and boundaries are getting a little blurry (the poking is not endearing). Administrators need more training in the intersections between privacy laws, online content and successful ways to translate relationships onscreen into supportive ones in person.
It would be foolish to turn a blind eye to Facebook as a gathering place where our students forge bonds before they ever meet face to face. We must, however, make sure that our Facebook embrace is as delicate as it is intentional, lest it conflict with the orientation program that we actually plan.