Monday, December 11, 2006

Community or Commodity?

Before I launch into the topic of Facebook, Facutly participation and whether you should be "friends" with your students on Facebook, I have to give props to SteveG for the title. So, I confess, I am on Facebook. If you don't know what that is, it is a social networking software program for college campuses. It is an essential tool for college life (one student just told me that it is essential for "stalking"). Very few professors are on Facebook, but of course, I joined. I have found it an enormously helpful way to keep in contact with students after they graduate. I never intended to stay on and I don't advertise this fact to my students. But, they inevitably find me and ask me to be one of their "friends," which brings me to my question: Is it morally problematic to be "friends" with your students on Facebook?

Since I don't like moralistic answers, I am going to avoid the obvious "no," and opt instead to consider what exactly it means to be a Facebook Friend? Aferall, I don't think I know some students who ask me to be their friend, but I agree to be connected to them anyway. I have never given much thought to this habit until Metapsychologist pushed me to think about it this morning. When I agree to be "friends," I am usually really careful about not joining their "groups." I don't add silly flourishes about how we know each other. And yet, I accept their invitations routinely to be counted among their friends. But what exactly does it mean to be a facebook friend?

The way I see it, students "collect" as many "friends" as possible. It's like padding on a resume. They want to present themselves as socially attractive--popular. The more friends, the more writing on your wall, the more "groups" you belong too, the "cooler" you are. But, is that what I am aiming for when I agree to be their friend? I doubt it, since I never invite a student to be my friend. I just hang out and see if anyone invites me to the party.

Bottom line: the point of this social networking software is not so much to create community but turn "friends" into commodities. The more Facebook friends you have, the more social capital you have. And, you can be even more exclusive by turning off certain features of your Facebook profile, only be accessible by those "real" friends in your list that can know everything about you.

What do you think?