Facing the Facebook

“We often hear the assertion that rising faculty salaries drive the cost of tuition,” he says, but data over 25 years show that is not the case. “One of the several sources behind rising tuition rates is investment in technology.”

Facebook is not the sole source for those woes. However, it is a Janus-faced symbol of the online habits of students and the traditional objectives of higher education, one of which is to inspire critical thinking in learners rather than multitasking. The situation will only get worse as freshmen enter our institutions weaned on high-school versions of the Facebook and equipped with gaming devices, cell phones, iPods, and other portable technologies. —Michael J. BugejaFacing the Facebook (Chronicle)

Here’s an interesting anecdote from the article:

Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, recounts a class discussion during which he asked how many people had seen the previous night’s NewsHour on PBS or read that day’s New York Times. “A couple of hands went up out of about 140 students who were present,” he recalls. “One student chirped: ‘Ask them how many use Facebook.’ I did. Every hand in the room went up. She then said: ‘Ask them how many used it today.’ I did. Every hand in the room went up. I was amazed.”

Technology gives young people tremendous power to present themselves to other people, and to view the images those other people carefully construct via lists of alliances. The term “egocasting,” which Bugeja credits to Christine Rosen, is new to me, but it really fits. As a textual person myself, I can understand the desire to downgrade the value of social networking and image-sharing sites, since my own critical training has emphasized the analysis of words.

Websites that are made up mostly of lists of links to other lists of links define a kind of information structure that seems shallow when looked at next to, say, a finely honed Elizabethan sonnet. But that network contains cultural information and value that the users themselves feel intuitively. This article points out quite astutely that advertisers are vividly aware of the potential value of such huge networks of demographic data.

I don’t mind letting Amazon.com know what books I buy, because I feel I gain something of value in return. If I rate books according to what I do and don’t like, Amazon will show me a list of personalized books. I don’t often buy books from those lists myself, but I have used such lists in order to stock up the school library on new media and games studies texts, or to figure out what books to order through interlibrary loan.

In a similar way, the users of Facebook are publishing a tremendous amount of personal data about themselves. They become part of the data, which is disturbing when you think just how much control marketers have over popular culture, and just how little the young people who are targets of the marketing campaigns really think about how advertisements condition them to want the things that material goods can provide.

My favorite example is the invention of the tradition of the diamond engagement ring, which De Beers launched by giving diamonds to the stars of early Hollywood, and the more recent “right hand ring,” which women are supposed to buy themselves, as a sign of independence and power, but which has no particular cultural history outside of the De Beers company’s marketing boardroom.

When I was a kid, and “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” or “The Wizard of Oz” made its annual TV appearance, in school the next day, everyone would be talking about it. Now, my kids can ask for either of those shows, or a host of others that we’ve picked up inexpensively, or that we can borrow (yet again) from the library. That’s good, because they watch less crap (while waiting for something better to come along, which I remember doing frequently as a kid).

As a new media journalism kind of guy, I don’t mourn the loss of the old model of media production, in which a few elite power brokers broadcast their values to the silent masses, both in the topics they chose to investigate and the words they used to communicate their own particular truths.

I’d like to think that the critical thinking skills that students gain in college will help them make intelligent choices about how they use mass media, about how they choose to inform themselves about events going on in the world, and about how they choose to engage with each other on issues that matter to citizens living in a democracy.

Does the Facebook habit of joining groups condition people to follow, rather than lead? If you spend time seeking out people who are like you, how does that prepare you to engage productively and intellectually with people who disagree with you? How much social skill and maturity is required to carry on a conversation about topic X in a room where everyone has joined because they have already decided they share the same opinion on topic X? Does Facebook create a circle of safety, where the presence of other like-minded people reduces the chance that you might get into a flamewar with an interloper who holds a different perspective?

Usenet had a tradition of being freewheeling and occasionally brutal. Is Facebook the opposite — controlled, predictable, full of circles of friends who wear elaborate nametags designed to eliminate uncertainty?

I’ve sat here for a while, unsuccessfully trying to pull all these observations together. Something to think about for another day, perhaps.