Colleges and Universities Want to Be Your Friend: Communicating Via Online Social Networking

Article excerpt

Like it or not, communicating via online social networking sites is what millions of young people do each day.

It is the generation of connectivity. Access is expected 24 hours a day, seven days a week through more than one medium. In response, colleges and universities are expanding their online arsenals to include tools such as blogs, videos, podcasts, and online social networks. Many of these tools are produced by current students to give prospects an authentic firsthand glimpse of life on campus.

The changing shape of online social networking over the last half-dozen years has caused communicators to rethink how to best reach today's youth. Millions of high school and college students log in each day to Web sites to view recently uploaded photographs, check out opinions on blogs, and see whether friends have made any changes to their onscreen profiles. "Millenials," a term used to describe individuals born between 1981 and 2000, are growing up in a world in which participation in technology is considered conventional behavior. Timothy Hawkes, the headmaster of The King's School in Sydney, Australia, summarized it well in The Sydney Morning Herald: technology isn't part of students' lives these days. It is their lives" (Goodman 2007, unpaginated Web source).

Social networks refer to collections of individuals linked together by a set of relations (Downes 2005). Online social networks serve a parallel purpose through Web sites intended to help users meet new people or stay connected with friends and associates. Online social networks are also called "virtual communities" or "profile sites," and the relationship-building capacity of these sites results in more than simplistic social consequences, particularly when it comes to higher education. Network participants are exposed to groups focused on the advantages and/or disadvantages of specific colleges, clubs, and professors. Higher education institutions are rapidly realizing that reputation, campus culture, and even enrollment figures may be affected by online social networking.

Facebook's Domination of the College Market

One network in particular dominates the college scene, with a greater than 85 percent market share among students of four-year universities in the United States: Facebook. Originally called "thefacebook" and released on February 4, 2004, its sole target was college students. Now, Facebook is the second-most (after MySpace) trafficked online social networking site. In a hipper context, Facebook is "... the online hangout of just about every college student in the nation" (Levy 2007 P- 42). Mark Zuckerberg, the man credited with Facebook, dropped out of Harvard University to focus full-time on his creation. Like MySpace co-founders Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, Zuckerberg had become frustrated with his own experience and felt he could develop something better. The story is told that he believed Harvard was too slow to create an online student directory, so he made sure his own version was both expedient and impressive. After 6,000 Harvard students registered with thefacebook within the first three weeks, Zuckerberg piloted the program at Stanford University and Yale University (Naposki 2006). Zuckerberg's online social networking site quickly became a sought-after commodity and was renamed Facebook in August 2005. Facebook initially required a college or university .edu domain extension, but the site has since expanded, boasting 70 million active users as of April 2008.

Importance of Connectivity to Prospective and Current Students

Facebook has more than three million users aged 25 to 34 and more than 500,000 users aged 35 or over (Ronn 2007). That means that the clear majority of the 90 million active users of Facebook (and of other online social networking sites) are of traditional college age. Therefore, it is important for those in higher education to understand how communication via social networks fits into the larger picture of relationships and overall well-being. …

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