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Magazine On-line [spring 2009]
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Features

student at computer

Students use Facebook and cell phones to move a portion of
student life to the on-line world

By William A. Bowden

In the spring of 2007, when Lacey Napper knew she was coming to Transylvania that fall, she joined the Facebook group for her incoming class. Later that summer, after using the social networking Web site to begin to get to know her future classmates, she attended a picnic at Lexington’s Jacobson Park that the students arranged on their own, using Facebook as their organizing tool.

“Through Facebook, I was able to have conversations with, and see photos of, these people before I even came to Transy,” said Napper, a sophomore philosophy major. “That was really beneficial to me, because it made me less nervous about being in a completely new environment. About 50 of us from many different towns came to the picnic. I met some of my future sorority sisters there, and my future boyfriend.”

Napper’s experience illustrates the quiet revolution on the social side of student life that has occurred in just a few short years through the wildly popular social networking site known as Facebook. Augmented by use of the ubiquitous cell phone, this virtual community allows students to conduct a certain amount of their social life in the on-line world. (For staff, faculty, and University use of Facebook)

Mike McNary
Mike McNary ’11
“The Internet is just another tool. I’m sure the telephone was considered by some to be cold and impersonal when it first appeared.
I think it’s the interaction itself that’s more important than the medium.”

There was a time in the not too distant past when college students kept in touch with one another and happenings on campus in ways that had changed very little over many decades. An occasional phone call (landline, of course), face-to-face encounters, bulletin boards (real paper on real corkboards), meetings, weekly assemblies of the entire student body (at small liberal arts colleges), student newspapers, and plain old word-of-mouth kept everyone well informed about special events, social activities like parties and dances, and the latest on who was going out with whom.

It was the social side of student life being conducted almost entirely in the “real” world. Describe that kind of campus culture to today’s Transylvania students or their peers across the country, and the reaction is likely to be, “Really? That’s hard to imagine.”

Students today, of course, continue to experience most of their social lives in the face-to-face world, but they increasingly rely on Facebook to communicate news about campus events, parties, and other social activities; converse about campus gossip; and even build personal relationships that may lead to dating or just hanging out. Facebook often paves the way for in-person activities, but has also become a very entertaining site in its own right.

 HOlly Milburn
 Holly Milburn ’11
“If something is just word-of-mouth, it’s almost regarded as not pertinent. The consensus is, well, we’ll wait until it becomes official, that is, until it’s on Facebook or Columns (the University’s daily e-newsletter).”

Facebook was launched in 2004 at Harvard University and has grown with brush-fire speed to reach more than 175 million subscribers around the world, including virtually every Transy student. Its colorful graphics and ability to allow users to post photos, create Web links, and have conversations that may be shared with hundreds of “friends” (those you have designated for access to your account) have won widespread approval from users.

“The ability to plan and organize their lives is something I think college students have to figure out, and these technological tools help them with that,” said Mike Vetter, dean of students. “Bringing people together in these social networking systems is really a big change.”

Like the air they breathe

The rapidity with which Facebook has become a student life essential is stunning to some observers, but is taken in stride by today’s students, most of whom have never experienced college life without it.

“Automatically, when I wake up in the morning, I check my Facebook,” said Napper, who began using the site as a high school junior and got her first cell phone in the eighth grade.

The picnic she attended is the type of student-directed event that tends to appear on Facebook. University-wide events, such as a Kenan Lecture or a theater production, are publicized by Transy faculty and staff, though students participating in those activities might use Facebook to invite their friends to attend.

Lacy Napper
Lacey Napper ’11
“Facebook makes it easier to misbehave, because people will be more brave than they would be when they’re with someone in normal conversation. What that should teach you is discretion.”

“It’s mainly social events that we schedule on Facebook—parties and things like that—although anything that’s student-led may show up there,” said Holly Milburn, a sophomore planning a special major pattern in social justice. “For instance, Power Shift (the annual climate change forum in Washington, D.C.) is a national student-run event that’s promoted on Facebook. It can be kind of random, just whoever is motivated to put their event up. With parties, if it’s not Facebook official, it’s safe to say not many people will know about it.”

One of the popular features of Facebook is “Status Update,” a prominent place at the top of each profile page for writing a quick message about how you’re feeling that day, what activity you’re engaged in, or some other brief thought.

“You might say, ‘I’m in a good mood,’ or ‘I’m in a bad mood,’ or ‘Here are song lyrics I like’,” said DJ Nichols, a first-year student pursuing a political science major and philosophy minor. “And you can comment on other peoples’ status. If someone’s having a bad day, you can ask why. Then it becomes a conversation.”

Some students also use Facebook to keep in touch with high school classmates, and even now project a future in which the site will let them keep up with Transy friends and others throughout the years.

“I was a Kentucky Governor’s Scholar and I met students from all over the state,” Nichols said. “Facebook is now our main way of keeping in touch. I can see myself and my Transy classmates remaining friends longer than my parents’ generation, only because we have Facebook. The world’s gotten smaller because of it. Walls don’t exist anymore. Miles don’t exist.”

DJ Nichols
DJ Nichols ’12
“It’s important, and I think my generation has realized this, that just because you know who someone is on-line does not mean that’s (the complete picture of) who they are.”

When it comes to cultivating personal relationships, Facebook and cell phones can play an important role, often in the very early stages of getting to know another person. After a relatively brief face-to-face meeting, students will often trade cell phone numbers, and then the technological dance begins.

“Even if someone doesn’t come right out and ask you on a date over a text message, it might be something like, ‘Hey, we should hang out sometime.’,” Napper said. “I’ve been asked on a date through a text message, but I still like to be asked in person sometimes. But I think Facebook and texting help you bridge that gap.”

Unlike the nerve-wracking scenarios of the past, where a young man builds up his nerve to ask for a date in person, today’s students often skip the “sweaty palm” stage by using technology.

“I think dating in general has changed because of cell phones,” Nichols said. “We skip the nervous part. You’ve met the person in a very casual way at first, and then you get to know them better without being in direct contact with them. Then when you meet face-to-face again, maybe just to hang out at first, you’re not nervous because of all the messages you’ve exchanged.”
Brave new world?

As Facebook, text messaging, and electronic communication in general have become more and more popular on college campuses, it’s only natural that questions arise about the effects of such a major shift in behavior. Is there cause for concern about the encroachment of so much on-line activity into the realm of in-person socializing? Put another way, is too much face time being displaced by Facebook time?

Yes, say some, who contend that students are losing too much of the uniquely human experience of face-to-face contact. No, say others, who believe that these technological tools are no different in purpose from earlier advances, such as the telephone, and that they can actually enhance the in-person experiences.

In general, students face two issues. The first is the temptation simply to spend too much time on Facebook, which can disrupt time needed for studying as well as extracurricular activities. The second is a more specific time consideration, but also a qualitative issue about the true nature of human social interaction. The concern is that too much on-line socializing, to the detriment of in-person interaction, could be emotionally or psychologically unhealthy.

As for the temptation to just while away the time on Facebook, most of the students interviewed for this article admitted that has been an issue with them at times. They all say they have managed to put the Web site in its proper place in their lives, but add that they know of students who need to cut back on its use.

“If I’m doing homework on my computer that I don’t particularly want to be doing, and I’d like to have a little diversion, it’s a temptation to get on Facebook way too much every once in a while,” said Jacob Brumfield, a junior business major. “Some people just go through other people’s pages looking at whatever is there, doing what is known as ‘Facebook stalking.’ I think they’re addicted. They need to deactivate their account for a month or two and detox.”

Jacob Brumfield
Jacob Brumfield ’10
“When someone is spending too much time on Facebook and gives it up for Lent, it causes a hubbub. ‘Oh, my gosh, they left Facebook! Why did they do that?’ And this happens every Ash Wednesday.”

Among those who have recognized that their Facebook time was getting out of hand is Milburn, who once decided to give up the Web site for Lent. Turns out she wasn’t alone—it happens every year on Ash Wednesday in the Facebook world.

“It was extremely difficult to do that,” Milburn said. “Facebook is such a significant aspect of our lives in terms of how you communicate with people. But it was important for me to realize how much time I was spending on it and how much time I wasn’t devoting to doing my homework.”

Mike McNary, a sophomore computer science major also pursuing minors in music and mathematics, is a bit of a contrarian when it comes to text messaging and Facebooking. He has a Facebook account, but isn’t devoted to it.

“I’m not a huge Facebooker,” McNary said. “If I see that someone has added me as a friend, or someone wrote to me about an event coming up, sure, I’ll get on and check that, but I don’t Facebook-stalk people. I don’t have all the applications installed, the games and so on.”

The second issue—the emotional or psychological implications of on-line interaction—is more difficult to analyze. Psychology professor Melissa Fortner ’96 says her concern about the on-line social world is “measured,” but real. (She’s one of the millions of adults who have Facebook accounts. More than half of Facebook users are outside of college, and the over-30 age group is the fastest growing demographic, says Facebook.)

“Human beings evolved as social creatures in a particular context, that is, face-to-face,” Fortner said. “A lot of our needs and our development are wrapped up in face-to-face communication that is largely non-verbal. One of my concerns is the extent to which students may be losing out on something they’re wired to need.”

Identity development and the adoption of a persona are very real issues for college students, said Fortner, and the on-line social world brings a new slant to that developmental process.

“In a face-to-face social world, the adoption of persona is inherently limited, because everyone can see you,” she said. “In the virtual social world, the boundaries either disappear or go way, way out, so you might get more outlandish in what you’re portraying, a bit further away from who you really are. For some, the virtual world can become entirely separate from their face-to-face world.”

Melissa Fortner
Melissa Fortner ’96, professor of psychology
“You have the opportunity on Facebook to discuss interests you may not feel free to express in your face-to-face world. ‘I really like my English class,’ for instance. Students are not always talking about parties, they’re talking about life.”

Associate dean of students Michael Covert ’91 noted that, because Facebook has become so omnipresent among students, the University uses its summer registration sessions, orientation week, and University 1111 classes to remind incoming first-year students of some of the implications of what they post on their profiles.

“We tell them that, as new college students, they are starting fresh with a new group of people, and that they should give some thought as to how they want others to perceive them,” Covert said. “Others will often make judgments about you based on photos you may post, which could be misunderstood or taken out of context. Are you presenting an image on-line that is the same image you would want to portray in a face-to-face meeting?”

The sampling of students for this article reveals an awareness of the potential drawbacks to Facebooking, along with a reassuring attitude of dealing with them in a thoughtful way.

“I’ve always been extremely social, so Facebook never fulfills my need to see people and interact with them personally,” Milburn said.

“I don’t want to be in front of a device all the time, tapping away every minute, giving people constant updates about myself,” McNary added.

“I think in some ways, having a Facebook account increases the amount of face time that you spend with people,” Napper said. “For instance, you might write to someone you wouldn’t be comfortable to go up to out of nowhere, and if you establish a relationship on Facebook, you’re more likely to talk to them when you see them in between classes.”

The off-line past

Having heard about the decidedly non-technological world of student life in the past, Brumfield wistfully imagines being “unplugged” from the on-line social community so prevalent now on college campuses.

“I would like to have gone to college without Facebook and cell phones, just to see what it would be like, because I feel they take a lot of interpersonal action away,” he said. “I can’t imagine not having a cell phone and being constantly in contact, but are our lives really any better because of that?”

Given the ubiquitousness of on-line social networking, it doesn’t appear likely that Brumfield will get his wish anytime soon. As technological things seem to go, once they’re here, they seldom go away. (For example, e-mail and e-commerce) Indeed, it seems likely that college students will have to face up to Facebook for years to come.

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