To be or not to be on MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking websites? That is the question. With the growing interest in these online marketing and PR newcomers, higher ed leaders are wondering about making the leap and setting up a presence in such uncharted-and often described as dangerous-waters.
MySpace and Facebook, the most popular of these websites, have been around for less than four years. But they already tout member bases of more than 100 million for MySpace and more than 19 million for Facebook, and MySpace got a profile boost when it was puchased by Rupert Murdock in 2005. Beyond these numbers reported by the companies themselves, independent surveys have confirmed a mere fact of life in America: Students are addicted to these new "social clubs."
The Noel-Levitz report "E-Expectations: The Class of 2007" labeled upcoming college freshmen "the Social-Networking Generation." A national survey of 1,018 high school juniors conducted by phone in 2006 found that 43 percent had created a profile page designed for prospective students using a site such as MySpace or Live Journal; the 57 percent who hadn't said they would if they could.
According to Stephanie Geyer of Noel-Levitz, an update to the project will ask several additional questions to explore students' ideas about, and preferences for, college and university engagement on external social networking sites. She notes that many schools are considering or have built their own social networking communities within their own sites.
As the current report notes: "Today's college-bound students connect, communicate, and create collectively online. This trend toward online social networks presents dramatic implications-and new possibilities-for e-recruitment."
In late 2006, the Pew Internet and American Life Research Project surveyed a national sample of 935 youths ages 12 to 17 about how and why they use social networking sites. The report, "Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview," confirms that 55 percent of online teens have created a personal profile online; 55 percent have used sites like Facebook. Also discovered: 48 percent of teens visit social networking websites daily, with 22 percent visiting several times a day.
And "The 2007 Horizon Report," released around the same time by the New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), concluded that social networking web services can't be ignored. "Increasingly, this is the reason students log on. The websites that draw people back again and again are those that connect them with friends, colleagues, or even total strangers who have a shared interest," explains the report.
While these sites are widely used, they're seen as student-only spaces. Are administrators or professors even welcome?
Fred Stutzman-a PhD student at the School of Information and Library Science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has researched identity, social software, social technologies, computer-mediated communication, and more specifically Facebook-thinks social networks are key media through which students can be engaged. Conversations that level the playing field among students, academics, and administrators can occur. In other words, students and faculty/staff are equals on these sites. "Part of college is building successful relationships with those in power, and the humanizing aspect of communication in a space like Facebook goes a long way," he says.
That's just the idea behind an initiative at Mars Hill College (N.C.), which settled in MySpace and Facebook last year. Initially used for on-campus communications, Facebook has become an enrollment strategy addition. Once the MHC network reached a certain momentum with current students, more and more students from high schools visited by MHC admissions reps or who had been sent mailings started to join the Facebook "friends" group of the institution. "Now, many of those Facebook friends are enrolled to attend next fall," says Andy Mrozkowski, webmaster at MHC.
The University of Florida also started to use Facebook groups last year to promote three graduate programs to undergrads. The decision was based on plans developed by a graduate-level public relations class, on assignment for the University Relations office. Course descriptions, faculty and student bios, and research information were included on Facebook. Grad students and faculty members posted comments and responded when undergrads inquired about the programs. Each program was seeking 10 to 12 additional graduate students, and with that goal met by all three, Joe Hice, associate vice president for Marketing & Public Relations, says, "We believe the Facebook outreach helped."
Another example: Park School of Communication at Ithaca College (N.Y.). Its MySpace profile shares videos created and produced by students and offers a way for alums to connect with recent grads.
David Bowers, assistant dean for external affairs at California Western School of Law in San Diego, is a strong believer in the power and the future of online social networking. But he has stayed away from Facebook or MySpace, despite that CWSL students have set up groups on both sites on their own. "It would be a breach of my responsibility to my constituents to recommend the use of those sites rather than provide them the tools they're looking for," he says. The institution had studied closely the terms of agreement of these third-party, for-profit services. Administrators now have plans to launch a private social networking website using an external vendor instead.
The public social networking concept, Stutzman notes, "is not a public service. It is not a utility. There are no guarantees about what may happen to the Facebook [business], who may buy it, or what may happen with its data. Colleges must keep this in mind before they base any strategy too squarely in the Facebook."
In this context, is a private social-networking website the way to go? It's definitely the safest and the most convenient-for institutions, at least.
Sam Jackson, a senior at Philips Exeter Academy (N.H.) who has reported extensively about the whole college admission process on his personal blog, has been admitted to the Yale Class of 2011. Like other early-admitted freshmen, he has used the institution's own website, which has a section dedicated to the future students. He also interacts with peers on a Facebook group these high school seniors created themselves. While he recognizes the usefulness of the school's website, such websites do demand students juggle yet another login and web presence.
He says, "I would like to see an integration between one of these sites and another more mainstream social networking website-a concept that I understand was actually under consideration from the development staff [at Yale]."
With the release of Facebook application programming interface (API) in August 2006, this kind of integration is now possible and could help build the next generation of social networking websites on your campus.
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college as well as a consultant on web projects for other institutions.