Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Confirm or Ignore: Facebook and Professionalism

*This post has been cross-posted to both EDUTech and TECHNOpticon due to the overlapping topic.

It happened again today.

I logged on to Facebook (henceforth called FB) and there was another 'friend' request from a student. Oddly enough, every time it happens I feel somewhat guilty for choosing the 'ignore' button. Don't get me wrong -- I am never rude or 'mean' to students when ignoring their friend request. On the contrary, I usually thank the student for the invitation before informing them that I do not feel comfortable 'friending' my students on FB.

Ordinarily, I would not have thought twice about this whole 'friending' thing, however in the past week I have had five students invite me to 'friend' them on FB. As a result of this trend, I felt the need to consider my motives and reasons for refusing friend invites. The fact is, I think friending students -- and for that matter colleagues -- on FB is a slippery slope that blurs the line between professional interaction and social interaction. 
FB is at it's core a social medium. It was designed as a way for people to connect with others and it is certainly doing that. However, the inherent 'friendliness' of FB has the potential to create awkward and possibly unethical situations. For instance, it is largely considered unethical to go out drinking with one's students. It isn't that I think students don't drink (I'm more realistic than that), it is just that I would be concerned that students might lose respect for me if we spent the evening socializing and drinking together. As a young female in academia, I have to fight hard enough to earn the respect of students, I would not risk undermining that by socializing with my students. For me, allowing students to 'friend' me on FB is the same as going to a party with them and socializing -- it breeds familiarity, not respect.

That said, I have the same issues with 'friending' work colleagues. I have colleagues that I have grown very close to and have become good friends with. I also have colleagues that I speak to only when I must because we have little in common. This causes problems because I feel guilty refusing friend requests from some to protect the privacy of my personal life, while wanting to allow those I actually consider 'friends' access to my 'personal' FB space.

Now, some might read this and assume that I was doing shady things on my FB pages and didn't want students or colleagues to find out -- not so. In fact, I use my FB page regularly to socialize and keep up with family and friends -- the people I hang out with regularly or care enough about to want to be a part of their lives (even if only via FB). My FB page is notoriously dull (I am a junior academic, my life revolves around teaching, writing and my medieval geek activities).

So why do I refuse 'friend' requests if I have nothing to hide?
I have two reasons:
  • To reserve my 'private space' as a safe-haven from work
  • To protect the privacy of my students and colleagues
Preserving my 'safe-haven'
Case in point - last year in the midst of a very hectic academic job search season, I made a comment on my FB page about an interview I had. A very casual work acquaintance (that I had forgotten was in my FB network because they rarely posted anything) took what I said out of context -- flat out distorted information by assuming they knew which of the 8 positions I interviewed for, that I was referring to  -- and apparently said something to the search committee (at the WRONG university I might point out!). Turns out, this cost me a job.

I posted what I thought was an innocent comment on my page that did not name names, in what I thought was a 'safe' place, only to have it used against me.

Lesson learned!

Everyone needs a place where they can interact with non-work people and FB is (one of) mine. And I won't apologize for that either. No more work colleagues are allowed on my FB page. I have locked down the privacy settings and limited who has access.

As to students, what professor doesn't gripe occasionally about the monotony of grading essays or exams? Or complain about students who miss class and then complain that they don't understand what we are working on in class. I believe academics have the right to have a private FB page for family and friends -- it should be a safe place for them to vent about work frustrations to people who will not use that venting against them. Other professions accept that, why not academia?

Protecting the privacy of my students and colleagues
Many of my students and colleagues are not quite as 'net-savvy' as I am (and I am in no way an expert on EVERYTHING 'net related!). As such, they don't seem to realize that when a friend posts a compromising picture of them on a FB page and tags them, the PICTURE shows up on my wall and can also be seen by anyone viewing my wall!

I realize that if people adjust their privacy settings (and if FB would stop changing them every 6 weeks or so) this sort of unexpected 'sharing' would not occur; but the fact is that people either do not know how to make things private or they are simply too lazy to do so.

Additionally, with regard to students, I really don't want to hear about the latest 'kegger' they attended on frat row, or be privy to status posts about the problems they are having with their significant other -- those aspects of their lives are none of my business and I would like to keep it that way.

Why do they send 'friend' requests in the first place?
The answer to this is quite simple really. New students (freshmen) tend to want to friend professors because A) they are trying to be friendly, B) they are used to 'hip' teachers and mentors that allow friending and C) they think it could be a useful way to interact (ask questions, etc...). Many students are used to having very large friend networks composed of both close friends and indirect acquaintances. They simply do not understand that others prefer to have more intimate circles of friends. On the other hand, upper level students seek to friend professors for different reasons, usually relating to being able to contact the professor when they need job or graduate school references. 

The friending behavior of work colleagues is different again. After doing an informal poll among my past, present and future colleagues, the top three reasons people send friend invites to work colleagues are:
  1. Because they genuinely want to foster a friendly relationship with the person.
  2. Because they are on FB and have some colleagues as 'friends' and don't want others to feel like they are not liked.
  3. Because they want to see what the other person is up to when they aren't at work and essentially 'spy' on them.
Reasons 1 and 2 are not particularly worrisome, but 3 is troubling.

So what can be done to maintain professionalism, while having 'fun' with FB?
Facebook is a great way to communicate and interact with a wide variety of people -- including students and colleagues. In fact, as a professor I have been developing ways to use FB as a teaching tool (check EDUtech for the up-coming post). That said, my top priority when it comes to FB is to connect with family and social friends.

In considering the issues and potential ethical problems of friending students and colleagues, I have come up with a simple solution -- I have two FB accounts. One account is limited only to family and friends that I socialize with on a regular basis with, or went to school with, the other account is limited to colleagues and students.

That said, there are some colleagues who I am close enough to that I allow them access to my 'personal' FB page. When it comes to students, I only accept friend requests for my 'personal' account from students who have already graduated and are no longer at the university. At that point I do not see an ethical problem in communicating more casually with them, and in some cases I have found FB a useful way to mentor past students, despite being far away from them.

With this solution, I no longer have to 'ignore' students and colleagues, merely point them to my 'professional' account.

I would love to hear how others deal with these issues.
Note: This post has been cross-posted to both TECHNOpticon and EDUtech as the topic overlaps.