By Kathy Fischer,
associate director, Women’s Center at the University of Connecticut
As my women’s center colleagues and I compared notes at the 2006 National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) conference, it became clear to us that social networking sites, Facebook in particular, were here to stay. My colleagues and I were amazed at how integral Facebook had become to the lives of our students, and although we found certain uses of the site disturbing, we saw its popularity as presenting a unique opportunity. Using Facebook, we could meet students in their social world, and incorporate a feminist presence and critique into a space that can be prone to sexism, racism, and homophobia. In fall 2006, the University of Connecticut (UConn) Women’s Center started a Facebook site of its own. Over the past year, we have used Facebook for community building, organizing, marketing, and disseminating feminist critique, and learned about how to deploy Facebook effectively.
The Women’s Center at UConn seeks to provide a safe space for students exploring their feminist identities, and to create opportunities through experiential learning to enhance students’ overall academic experience. We frame feminism broadly as “the belief that all women have the right to control their bodies and destinies; the right to live a life free of violence and abuse; and the right to equal protection under the law, including access to education, employment, and power.” We focus special attention on women who face additional oppressions due to race, nationality, class, sexual identity, religion, age, and physical or mental ability. Because Facebook serves as a space for students to explore their identities (and one that is often in need of a feminist consciousness), we saw the opportunity to encourage experiential learning in a forum that was already popular with our students.
Facebook, created in 2004 for college students to network with their intra-institutional peers, is a free, user-friendly “social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them. People use Facebook to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet. [It] is made up of many networks, each based around a company, region, or school” (“About Facebook”). Users can create a profile of themselves, which they use to socialize with their peers, groups, or networks. Much like traditional social groups, these networks allow users to join and interact.
This accessibility and flexibility has made Facebook an incredibly popular venue for online interaction. As of August 10, 2007, the UConn network alone had just under 31,000 members. According to comScore, more than 52 million unique users logged on to Facebook during June of this year--representing a 270 percent increase in users over last year (comScore 2007). This increase resulted in large part because Facebook expanded access, no longer requiring users to have specific affiliations with universities, colleges, regions, or workplaces. The size of the Facebook community, and the speed with which it allows information to spread, makes Facebook an ideal tool for communication, advertising, and community building. The UConn Women’s Center sought ways to use this tool in the service of our mission to advocate, educate, and provide support services for the achievement of women's equity at the University and within the community at large.
Facing the Beginning: Laying the Foundations
Women’s studies students posted this image of “SnowJourner Truth” with a creative biographical note to generate activity on the site.
Our initial Facebook site included only a few students and employees currently affiliated with the Women’s Center and saw little traffic. To generate activity, we used our logo as the “face” of the group, added pictures of recent graduates and Center events, and began to let people know we were there.
We were also proactive in seeking to expand our network by reaching out to graduates through emails. Many former students tell me that they miss the feminist community at the Women’s Center and the space it allowed them to process issues related to feminism. A Facebook group provides an excellent venue to reconnect with these former students. The number of group members grew significantly in response to our invitations, but we soon learned our first lesson about Facebook networking: understand the limitations when setting up your groups.
Facebook does allow members to restrict access to profiles and groups--a key feature that provides some limited privacy within this public forum. To maintain control over our forum, we set up the Women’s Center group on the UConn network (as opposed to a global network), which required members to have a uconn.edu email address. That choice excluded some graduates who no longer had university email addresses. As Facebook does not allow changes in the group type, our original decision to use a local network inadvertently created a barrier to fostering a continued sense of community with graduates.
This initial outreach effort also taught us our second lesson: remember that Facebook, although incredibly popular among current students, is not a universal phenomenon. Students who had graduated three or more years ago typically did not use Facebook and rarely expressed any interest in joining. It was not a tool with which they readily identified. While we expect successive graduates to be Facebook users, for now, its newness limits the use of our group.
The Many Facets of Facebooking
Despite these challenges, Facebook has provided many opportunities for us to encourage activism and foster dialogue with our students. The tools available on Facebook have facilitated a range of Women’s Center activities, from publicizing programs and events to presenting a forum for students to analyze of the intersectionality of oppressions. Creating a group is an excellent place to begin.
A successful Facebook group requires ongoing activity, typically generated by members and maintained by a site administrator, to stimulate user interest. Facebook activities can encourage visits to the group. One of the most popular activities is to post pictures and “tag” the people in them: identify the people, create a link to their profiles, send a message to that individual and to their friends’ “news feed,” and automatically add the picture to the “more pictures” section of their profiles. Women’s Centers could also use the discussion boards (where users can post visible messages for the whole group) to generate conversation. Other potential activities include encouraging students to use the Wall (a mini discussion board located on individual and group profile pages) and frequently posting links to the group homepage. Maintaining activity through these methods can be time consuming. It is an ideal task to assign to a student employee or intern, who can reduce the burden on staff time while personally benefiting from this valuable guided learning opportunity.
While generating content requires a significant time investment, Facebook contains mechanisms which quickly disseminate that information to other users. One relatively new feature, the “Mini-Feed,” catalogues any changes to an individual user’s page and thus helps users who visit that page “quickly and easily see what [that person has] been up to” (“Profiles, Mini-Feed, and the Wall Help”). Similarly, the “News Feed” announces activity generated by your friends. Simply by logging on to your home page, you can see what your friends--including the UConn Women’s Center--have been doing.
Because these feeds distribute information so quickly, they make Facebook a particularly effective tool for promoting campus events. Creating a Facebook event is easy. The event application also allows users to invite individuals to participate in campus activities while simultaneously posting the event to the network page for all visitors to see. Users can RSVP to invitations on the group page; these RSVPs encourage attendance and allow the organizer to anticipate the audience’s size and demographic makeup. Flyers, another advertising tool, are another effective way to announce events or advertise to large numbers of people on a local network. Similar to banner ads that run on standard Web sites, these advertisements are not free, but they are certainly affordable (starting at around five dollars).
In addition to providing an affordable medium for event announcement, Facebook helps Women’s Centers expand student involvement on a larger scale. The interactive tools I have discussed (Photos, Groups, Events, etc.) are called applications and were developed by Facebook. Recently, Facebook has allowed third-party developers to create more of these applications, with the goal of increasing the usefulness of the network. One third-party-developer application, Causes, helps the Women’s Center members raise awareness about other organizations they support. Through Causes, individuals can affiliate with other groups and invite others to “join the cause” as well. Thus Facebook, while primarily used by students as a way to maintain their social networks online, can also be a tool for encouraging student activism. This activism in turn becomes part of students’ online identities.
Saving Face: Examining Online Identity
Unlike many other social networking sites, Facebook began as a tool for users located in centralized physical locations, specifically college campuses. As a result, Facebook users’ online profiles tend to closely parallel their offline identities. Nevertheless, like other social networking sites, Facebook provides an opportunity for users to explore various aspects of their identities with a certain sense of anonymity. At the Women’s Center, we spend time processing with and supporting students as they negotiate their “feminist identities” in a variety of spheres in their lives. Because Facebook is a common forum for students to perform identity, it provides tangible, personal examples for discussions about identity performance. We encourage our students to critique their choice of profile pictures, the content of Wall posts, the dynamics of group memberships, and the demographics of event participation.
We also encourage our students to think about the relationship between student activism and identity on Facebook. Our student organizers have noted that by using and joining groups, they not only identify allies to recruit for other groups or causes, but also learn to recognize the multiple identities those allies have as individuals. These multiple identities can become apparent through functions such as the “related groups” sidebar, which lists other groups that share multiple members with the group in question. Upon examining other groups, students are sometimes surprised to discover allies in unanticipated places. Thus, in addition to encouraging further activism, the “related groups” feature prompts conversation about and across identity groups (including those with opposing viewpoints).
By serving as a forum for activism, Facebook can bring invisible inequalities to the surface of campus conversation. This dynamic played out recently at the University of Connecticut when a student organization, UConn Network Advocating for Responsible Media (UNARM), used Facebook to confront the student newspaper, The Daily Campus, for publishing racist, sexist, and homophobic material. A second group of students set up a Facebook group to support the newspaper and the author of the offensive material. These two Facebook groups generated a significant amount of activity on discussion boards and walls. As this conflict played out over Facebook, it opened the door for the Women’s Center to discuss a number of topics with our students offline, ranging from First Amendment rights to the relationships between different social categories and how to work individually and collectively to effect social change beyond the classroom.
Facebook provides opportunities for the Women’s Center staff to discuss with our students the risks and benefits of virtual and actual interaction. Many of these discussions require an examination of social networking through a gendered lens. Research by Danah Boyd at the University of California--Berkeley indicates that the virtual world tends to reproduce real-world inequities, suggesting that users of Facebook and MySpace divide along the lines of class and race (2007). Given these larger implications, the discourse on social networking cannot and should not be limited to the individual or local level. As the technology evolves, we must continue to consider the broader implications of its use.
We must also continue to take into account the developmental needs of our students. The mainstream media often reminds us of the dangers of social networking sites, and although its security features are far from perfect, Facebook allows users considerable control over who sees what, if any, aspects of their profiles. These features, however, can provide our students with a false sense of security, leading them to add virtual strangers--such as someone they met at a party--to their Facebook networks as friends. As educators, we have a responsibility to encourage our students to be thoughtful about the information they choose to make available, and to understand that regardless of online security features, no information they post to the Internet is truly private.
We can also be guided by our students’ experiences with this developing technology. Facebook features can take on unintended meanings. Our students have taught us, for example, the functional meaning of the Facebook “poke.” According to Facebook, a poke is “a feature without any specific purpose. People interpret the poke in many different ways, and we encourage you to come up with your own meanings” (“Inbox, Messages and Pokes”). Yet students explain that the poke is widely interpreted as an invitation for sex. As this technology and the meanings attached to it evolve, dialogue with our students becomes increasingly important to ensuring our own responsible use of Facebook.
Over the past year, the UConn Women’s Center has successfully used Facebook to stay in touch with graduates, share information, advertise, and organize. As we experiment further with Facebook, I will follow the evolving uses of this technology to identify new ways to adopt Facebook as a feminist organizing tool. With additional applications being added and new communications tools integrated on a regular basis, Facebook promises to provide new ways to advance our mission. Whether we like it or not, Facebook and other social networking sites are here to stay. Our job is to design it to maximize student learning about who they are, how they relate to others, and how they can be more engaged citizens.
“About Facebook.” www.facebook.com/about.php. Accessed August 2007.
Boyd, Danah. 2007. "Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace." Apophenia Blog Essay. June 24. www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html. Accessed August 2007.
“Inbox, Messages and Pokes.” www.facebook.com/help.php?page=20. Accessed August 2007.
“Profiles, Mini-Feed, and the Wall.” www.facebook.com/help.php?page=3. Accessed August 2007.
“Social Networking Goes Global.” comScore. www.comscore.com/press/release.asp?press=1555. Accessed August 2007.