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Trustees explore Facebook

Mary Kate Malone | Friday, October 6, 2006

The Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees received a lesson on Facebook.com Thursday when a six-person student panel explained the purpose and prevalence of the popular social networking Web site.

Student body president Lizzi Shappell, student body vice president Bill Andrichik, chief executive assistant Liz Brown, senior Sheldon Dutes, sophomore Glen Water and freshman Kate McClelland sat in a row before the Student Affairs committee for 20 minutes, answering questions about digital student communication. Trustees selected the topic for the meeting, which was the first of three scheduled for this school year.

Before the question and answer session, Kathy Brannack, assistant director in the Office of Residence Life and Housing, gave a brief overview of the Facebook Web site using a PowerPoint presentation.

One Board member said he was “shivering,” after viewing a very detailed profile during Brannack’s presentation. The Observer has a policy of not attributing information or quotes to specific members of the Board.

Using verbs like “friend,” “tag” and “poke,” Board members quickly mastered Facebook lingo and posed questions about how – and why – students use the site, which has more than 7.5 million users in the United States.

“What I found interesting is that you talk about the Facebook world and the real world … you say in real life you have 20 friends and in your Facebook world you have 500,” said one Trustee. “What does Facebook provide that your real friends don’t provide? What need does it fulfill?”

The concept of a Facebook “friend” continued to perplex some Board members, who struggled to understand the motivation for having so many.

Andrichik clarified the meaning of “friend” on Facebook, explaining that the word is “too strong of a term,” since most Facebook friends are merely acquaintances, if that.

At Shappell’s urging, Dutes admitted he has roughly 900 Facebook friends, and after being pressed by a Board member, he said he rejects friend requests from people he has never met.

“Usually [it’s] people from other schools … If I don’t know them or haven’t met them, I reject [the request],” Dutes said.

Facebook, the students said, is both a way to keep in touch with high school friends and a means to establish one’s individuality.

“But if it went away, would that be a great loss? Second, what’s next? Where does it go from here?” one Trustee said.

Brown answered that it would be “really bad” if Facebook disappeared, since it is a way to keep in touch with high school acquaintances she might have otherwise lost contact with.

But perhaps Facebook’s capacity to connect high school friends takes away from “landing and really getting into college,” one Trustee said.

McClelland said that was not true in her case, noting that Facebook made the college adjustment easier by keeping Notre Dame friends easily accessible before she came to college as well as keeping high school friends close once she arrived.

“I think it improves your Notre Dame relationships as well as your high school relationships,” McClelland said.

But privacy issues are certainly a concern, Shappell said, noting that most students only allow their profile to be seen by their Facebook friends, and no one else.

“We joke that Facebook is a stalker’s dream,” Shappell said. “But it really is.”

Safety concerns aside, Trustees also expressed concern about the quality of communication between young people.

A Student Affairs representative brought up the absence of “verbal cues” in students’ communication and another spoke about information that is “left out” when students use text messaging and phone calls instead of letters.

Though some students admitted that instant messaging and text messaging can keep identities hidden, no student expressed resentment of that fact.

At the end of the discussion, one trustee warned the students that virtually any digital communication is “within the purview of the courtroom” and subject to discovery.

“All of this is captured and no longer private,” the Trustee said.

The Student Affairs committee is made up largely of younger Trustees and Trustees who hold positions at institutions of higher learning – making them an ideal group for a discussion like this, Shappell said after the meeting.