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Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

The Next Big Thing

The last next big thing was blogging.  Blogging can't be the next big thing anymore, since it's often mentioned on TV and radio news shows.  Of course, I haven't seen it appear in a TV sitcom, but I don't watch that much TV.  It seems that "everybody" now has a blog.  Some actually are interesting to read, but I tend to think that millions of people talking at once just adds up to a bunch of noise.  No, blogging is no longer the next big thing. Sorry if you missed it.

The real next big thing is online social networking.  Social networking takes blogging one step further.  Social networking not only allows the expression of opinions or information, but also organizes people into online communities and attempts to find commonalities between them.  A number of sites have been quite successful in this regard.  Facebook is probably the best known service to colleges and universities.  Facebook organizes itself around specific campuses and creates online communities of students at a campus.  

See the Sites

Along with Facebook, LiveJournal, MySpace, and Xanga make up the remainder of the popular social networking sites.  All of these seem to work very similarly.  Each member has their own site on which they can post blog entries, photos, favorites lists, and other kinds of information.  LiveJournal allows a member to create communities that others can join.  MySpace allows you to create a "friends list" and create moderated discussion groups. Xanga bills itself as a "The Weblog Community." It supports what it calls "blogrings" which associate blogs that have a common topic or theme and allows members to create or join blogrings.  Facebook also supports friends lists and groups as well as event postings and other features.

A cursory exploration of some of these sites will reveal some self expression, some self promotion, and plenty of popular culture references.  They may feature specific music or music videos and offer merchandise for sale in a gift shop.  These social network sites primarily appeal to high school and college-age young people, and it appears that tapping into their buying power is the driving business model.  All of these sites offer free membership, but some allow you to pay for an upgrade to receive additional services or resources.  

Controversy Abounds

The use and sometimes misuse of social networks by young people has recently garnered attention in a number of quarters.  A January 20 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education relates that university administrators are concerned with the amount of personal information that students sometimes post.  But it also relates how police at Penn State University used Facebook to identify students who had rushed the football field and pulled down the goal posts after their win over Ohio State.  This wasn't hard to do, since according to the Chronicle they found on Facebook, 'a student group titled, unsubtly enough, "I Rushed the Field After the OSU Game (And Lived!)"'.

Sacramento State University recently amended their student code of conduct to discipline students who post obscene or offensive material on any online forum, including those not provided by the University.  This move was not too favorably judged in a student newspaper editorial, which points out that first amendment rights may be involved and may end up being violated by such a policy.  However, more serious concerns surround use of online social networks by high school students.  A February 2 article in the Christian Science Monitor describes how Chicago teenagers posted threatening comments regarding a high school teacher.  Another report cites the sexual assault of teenage girls by men they met via Myspace.

Teens often post photos, contact information, snippets of conversation from chat logs, and other information which may be of a very personal nature and it appears that they don't realize how public and permanent such information can be.  I recently overheard a conversation between public school teachers describing a female student who sent the link to her Xanga site, which purportedly included explicit descriptions and links to pornographic web pages, to a male teacher.  It's not surprising that young people may not realize the bounds of propriety or etiquette for such situations but it may surprise some that this online use has extended to such a young group.

The Same old Thing

With the increase in broadband networking to households, I am guessing that more young people have unfettered access to online resources.  The popularity of broadband and wireless routers has led to household networks which no longer have the pressure of tying up the only phone line when in use.  Teens were eager adopters of online chat and gaming, so it's natural that they would populate online social networks as well.  Most sites have age restrictions, but these can be difficult to enforce.

Online social networks are not really new -- only the technology has changed. In the early wide-area network times, listserv e-mail lists, and later usenet news groups, often fostered the coalescence of online communities.  Just as today, there were problems with inappropriate conduct and inappropriate information being posted to these forums.  But in those days, the technology was generally used by higher education professionals (faculty and staff) and later by college students.  

A Little Education

I'm reminded of a tenet I read years ago in a Rand report entitled, Toward an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail, by Norman Shapiro and Robert H. Anderson.  They were talking about e-mail when they advised, "assume permanence and ubiquity" -- permanence in that any e-mail you write can easily be maintained for years on a backup tape or in someone's archive and ubiquity in the sense that once you send your e-mail, you lose your control over it and can't know how many people will eventually read it.  The same is true for anything posted online.  

Young people  (and many "old" people as well) need to be educated in online etiquette privacy protection.  This can be a difficult task when they are adopting technologies more quickly than their teachers.  Still, it's important for them to know the basic fact that anything they post online can be potentially viewable by teachers, parents, friends, law enforcement, and future employers.  In other words, they need to behave online, because it will go on their "permanent record."


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