- Online Social Networking on Campus: Understanding What Matters in Student Culture
In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995), Sherry Turkle provided a fascinating early work introducing readers to the evolving relationship between people, particularly young people, and their computers as a result of the emergence of computer-mediated communication involving multi-user domains, chat rooms, and the like. A decade later and just in time for the 5th birthday of Facebook Ana M. Martinez Alemán and Katherine Lynk Wartman have published Online Social Networking on Campus: Understanding What Matters in Student Culture, an enlightening and challenging look at the ways in which students use social networking online to explore their individual and collective identities.
Chapter 1 offers an overview of the nexus between campus life and online social networking. The authors note the absence of student voices and student perspectives from the current literature on this phenomenon. They observe that much of the professional discourse within higher education about online social networking focuses on potential problems such as addiction, cyberstalking, or harassment, but they note that social network sites offer a great deal of potentially positive opportunities as well. Examples include serving as public forum or a place to publicize programs. While sidestepping whether or not experts or professionals might recognize them as such, the authors argue that students see the social networking sites as real communities that are interconnected with their brick-and-mortar communities which are equally real to them.
The second chapter focuses on the emergence and acceleration of computer-mediated communication and college students’ participation in its various forms. The development of faster, user-friendly, and more affordable hardware was inexorably ratcheted with the corresponding development of innovations in connectivity and navigation (most notably the advent of hypertext and search engines such as Google). Napster, Friendster, and other early social networking sites were the products of the fact that many of the emerging technologies’ early adopters were college students. The authors point out that as the extent of students’ use of social networking grew, both in terms of the percentage of students involved and in terms of the extent and quality of interactions with and through social networking, a shift occurred in students’ understanding of identity and community that in some ways presents significant challenges to the constructs on which much of student affairs professional practice rests.
Working on campuses that were original participants in the Facebook network, the authors conducted two exploratory surveys and an ethnographic study in an effort to better understand students’ engagement with that social networking site. While the first two chapters of the book are very informative and thoughtful, chapter 3 is particularly fascinating because it reports their data and provides a wonderful opportunity to hear the [End Page 468] voices of students regarding their experiences with Facebook. The chapter also includes a helpful primer on Facebook for the social networking novitiate. The authors identified five themes in the students’ narratives: use-consciousness, campus culture, identity factors, and voyeurism and impression management. It was particularly interesting to me to learn about the importance students place on Facebook’s relationship status indicator as a marker of interpersonal commitment. One of the most intriguing and perhaps provocative observations by the authors in this chapter is that social networking sites are now important conduits for social capital on our campuses.
Chapter 4 presents a myriad of suggestions for student affairs professionals regarding social networking sites ranging from more conceptual recommendations for the reconsideration of some of our field’s central frameworks and theories to highly practical tips on content for orientation and for paraprofessional training programs. One particularly salient observation by the authors is that student leaders can serve as cultural translators for student affairs professionals by helping us to understand the world of social networking while at the same time serving as peer educators for fellow students on issues such as impression management. The chapter includes an extended discussion on the relationship...