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Viewpoints B y Tr a c y M i t r a n o

Facebook 2.0

n March 2006, the Cornell University users should end the notions, first, that On this subject I have an illustrative, if
associate registrar called me and asked, there is no privacy on the Internet and, not humbling, story. At the EDUCAUSE
“What are you going to do about Face- second, that youth have no interest in it. Learning Institute (ELI) annual meeting
book?” I laughed, somewhat impolitely, What remains fascinating is our ability to in January 2007, I invited a student of
at the thought that I could do anything observe the re-creation of cultural norms mine at Cornell to present a learning ses-
at all about a dot-com, but later I came whose existence in the physical world is sion about Facebook. With much poise,
to understand what she wanted. Tales of largely assumed, repressed, or forgotten. Nikki projected her Facebook front-page
embarrassing exposure, both for students What challenges remain with this killer on the screen as attendees filled the
and for higher education institutions, were app? I suggest three: (1) user education, room. I noted, with some curiosity, that
causing genuine concern among adminis- especially for adolescents and their par- Nikki’s profile photograph was of her in
trators, who wanted to inform students ents; (2) new features connecting higher an elegant evening gown standing closely
of the pitfalls that they might experience education’s missions to the popular site; beside another young woman, similarly
in using this new, explosive Internet ap- and (3) legal and policy considerations attired. Both, holding Champagne flutes,
plication. A few weeks later, on a typically on a global scale. Sensationalized and sad were smiling and happy in a toast. Face-
dreary, rainy Saturday in central New York, stories of teen-age suicides precipitated book front-pages include a photograph
I wrote “Thoughts on Facebook.”1 by cruel exchanges on social networking and fields to be completed by the user.
Fast-forward to early 2008: the press is sites have raised the profile of informa- One of these fields is “relationship,” which
filled with articles about social network- tion literacy and user education at early Nikki had filled in with “Engaged to S.L.,”
ing in general and Facebook in particular. ages. Primary school is not too early, for apparently the name of the other woman
Facebook owners have agreed to a multi- both students and parents. For teen-agers, in the photograph (the full name was in
million-dollar Microsoft deal that implic- the emergence of “helicopter” parents has the text, but I have abbreviated it for this
itly values the site at $15 billion. MySpace, no doubt driven adolescents deeper into publication). Nikki went on to assist the
currently the largest site of its kind, is technological zones that are generally out audience in logging on to Facebook, cre-
working with Google to create an open- of their parents’ hovering view. Unless an ating profiles, and demonstrating some
source alternative as a means of fending individual is particularly at risk, invading of its features. Later, at lunch, I raised my
off its ambitious competitor. The goal, in a teen-ager’s space is not the solution. But glass to Nikki and said, “Congratulations
keeping with Google’s overall mission to learning more about those spaces—how on your engagement!” Nikki looked a
organize the world’s knowledge, is to pro- they operate, who is on them, and most bit befuddled, hunched toward me, and
vide links between and among all of these important, how to talk about their social with a hushed voice so as not to cause me
sites in a seamless web of social network- dynamics—is recommended. Parents can embarrassment, said: “You didn’t believe
ing connectivity. With Facebook recently do that effectively only if they educate that, did you? I thought you knew I’m
allowing web crawlers like Google to themselves about both the technology straight!” Reputation was not her para-
capture front-pages of users’ profiles on a and the sociology of the Internet. And mount concern; rather, she did not want
default open setting, this development is demonizing the technology, as is sug- to show too much of her disappointment
as predictable as it is inevitable: social net- gested even by such august public organs that I did not understand the fluidity of
working goes global. Beacon—Facebook’s as Frontline, with its feature “Growing Up the virtual—and yet very real—social and
new advertising program, which uses its Online,” helps no one—not the youth who psychological world she inhabited.
“News Feed” feature to share members’ will undoubtedly use the technology, not Higher education plug-ins to social net-
activities on third-party sites—went from their parents who supervise them, and working sites present a second challenge.
an opt-out to an opt-in program within a not their teachers who need to under- Here it is not the technology but rather the
matter of days due to a user uprising over stand the role that this technology plays control and use of the technology that is at
privacy. If nothing else, these reactions by in their development. issue. With more institutions moving to-

72 Educause r e v i e w  M a rc h / A p r i l 2 0 0 8 © 2 0 0 8 Tr a c y M i t r a n o
ward commercial sites for student e-mail, that readily establishes the basis of tortu- social norms and psychological mean-
calendaring, and document applications, ous liability. These claims may portend ings, its advertising and market models,
it should not be too long before higher more public privacy laws, since among and its legal and policy queries on a
education collaborates with Facebook to developed nations the United States has global scale. A corporate, commercialized
link applications for course enrollment, ridiculously low standards. Accommoda- Internet has more money, flexibility, and
grade checks, and other online student tion to stricter international regulations motivation to innovate than do most busi-
services. InCommon offers security and may encourage stronger and more consis- ness aspects of higher education and is
privacy authentication; technological tent privacy laws in the United States or, the driving force behind the outsourcing
links, combined with considered contract if that bar is too high, at least the hope of of campus IT services and products. That
relations, should close the deal. Let’s “face” harmonized privacy policies on the sites move toward outsourcing might not be a
it: Facebook has built the site, and students with global constituencies. That optimis- bad thing. As entrepreneurs continue to
use it; we in higher education should come tic perspective should be tempered by the push the proverbial envelope of accept-
to recognize that this universal commer- ever-present reality that commercial sites ability in gossip and other salacious sites,
cial site is here to stay. We should use it for tie “free” services to marketing and adver- such as, legislators may
advertising and for communications—and tising business models. Privacy and free rethink the Communications Decency
Act’s section 230, which provides Internet
service providers and sites with immunity
from common torts such as defamation.
Designed to stimulate the development
of the Internet, this immunity is increas-
ingly coming under scrutiny as victims
of cyberbullying, libel, and defamation
seek to understand the role that technol-
ogy plays in terms of the scope and scale
of damages. ISPs, as passive conduits, are
not likely to be implicated, but site own-
ers may acquire more liability under less
protective legal regimes. Higher educa-
tion needs to get out of those kinds of
businesses altogether.
Nevertheless, those of us in higher ed-
ucation should be thoughtful about the
Illustration by Randy Lyhus, © 2008

degree to which outsourcing restricts our

control over our products and services
in higher education. IT professionals—
vice presidents and chief information
officers especially—have a responsibility
to raise critical questions and perhaps
even to teach or coach their administra-
tions about the long-term, and possibly
unintended, deleterious consequences
of decisions that seem so obvious from a
business and financial perspective today.
certainly for emergency messaging. The speech concerns will always be in tension Surrounded by commercialism and its
race is on: may the first institution to forge with commercial interests that seek infor- almost irresistible temptations, we must
this adventurous type of innovative col- mation about users and their preferences. be careful not to sell our souls.
laboration win. The “course enroll” sites Of greater consequence is the problem of
might just mark the beginning of such higher education’s reliance on these sites. Note
connections, soon to be followed by fac- What will happen when an advertiser  1. Tracy Mitrano, “Thoughts on Facebook,” Cornell
University Office of Information Technologies,
similes of course management and other decides to pull its account because it IT Policy Office, April 2006, <http://www.cit
content-delivery systems. objects to the content generated by a con-
Finally, global legal and policy con- stituent of higher education, which has facebook.html>.

cerns represent a third challenge. Civil become dependent on that site for deliv-
privacy claims stand out as the first issue. ery of services?
Tracy Mitrano is the Director of
Technology does not create the underlying Social networking continues to be a Information Technology Policy and
problem of tongues that wag too loosely, “cool new tool,” and we should stay con- Computer Policy and Law Programs
but it does amplify that problem in a way nected to its emerging technologies, its at Cornell University.

M a rc h / A p r i l 2 0 0 8  E d u c a u s e r e v i e w 73