Several years ago I attended a workshop devoted to a discussion of new online communication tools. One of the topics was social network services, such as Friendster and Orkut. Summarized in a nutshell, for those who are unfamiliar with these services, they enable people to create a personal web page, invite other people ("friends") to view and link to the page, and then use the resulting network of inteconnected friends to discover new people (friends of friends of friends...) with common backgrounds interests.
During the workshop I asked the presenter if colleges were using social network services. To me, it seemed, this sort of communication tool would be perfect for students, faculty, and staff to connect to each other. "Some are starting to do it," the presenter replied tersely.
Now it's several years later, and if you haven't heard, the social network system called The Facebook is the new rage on college campuses and high schools throughout the country, and even around the world. On that very plainly designed home page, it states: "You can use Facebook to: look up people at your school; see how people know each other; find people in your classes and groups."
That simple description seems to underplay the fascinating and complex social dynamics that has made the Facebook so popular. Students are connecting and forming relationships even before they arrive for their freshman year. Upperclassman are checking out the new students. Clusters of friends become an in-group with their inside jokes and stories. Students use Facebook as a springboard for flirting, dating, and breakups, and for comparing their campus life with their friends at other colleges.
This semester in my Group Dynamics course, when we talked about the online component of the course using the popular education software called Blackboard, we found ourselves discussing Facebook. Someone mentioned that we should form a group in Facebook as another way to get to know each other better. One student volunteered to set up the group. Some students quickly joined it, but others haven't yet. At least one student is reluctant to even join Facebook at all. For me, this a fascinating feature of the course: how the online component of our group compares to the in-person component, and how events online might indicate something hidden but important about how we react to each other.
While setting up my page in Facebook, I decided to invite my daughter to become a friend. She's a college freshman and has been using Facebook for several months. When I spoke to her on the phone about it, she said that it felt a little awkward having her father enter her Facebook space. It was something for her and her friends, and not for parents. That made sense to me. And it also reminded me of how people attach specific meanings, feelings, and purposes to their online spaces. The world of Facebook has the distinct energy and excitment of a "college student" atmosphere. If you get a chance to enter it, you'll see what I mean.