When the whole MySpace/Facebook dilemma reared its ugly head, my school decided to have the students propose a solution for monitoring our students’ pages, rather than blocking the popular Web sites. As a boarding school that is also a laptop school, we faced the special challenge of having to address the use of these sites beyond the traditional class day. We brought in experts to educate students about the dangers of such social networking, and we balanced this with instruction for faculty members on the myriad educational uses of the sites.
We have teachers using MySpace.com creatively in English, Spanish, and chemistry projects, and our student board has been effective in monitoring inappropriate postings among their peers. As a result, I was confident that we adults knew what was out there. I should have known better.
As we confidently write about these social-networking sites and give the students in our lives fair warning about lost job opportunities and college rejections, we also need to realize that we are, at least partly, out of the loop.
One morning, a senior who had received a substantial scholarship to a New England college entered my office and said she had changed her mind about going there. Surprised, I asked why. The girl explained that she had spent the weekend researching the college’s current students on Facebook.com, and now felt that she “just wouldn’t fit in.” What had she seen that made her feel that way, I asked. A student of color, she replied, “Do you know how many student pages I had to go through before I found one black person?” She added, “And the black students I found were just sitting in their rooms in the pictures, some drinking. There were no pictures of them out in the city, being active, having fun.”
This young woman is a leader who fills her days with every possible opportunity for growth. She never spends a vacation idle, always finding some conference, internship, or shadow day to enhance her learning. Sitting in a dorm room in Boston being inactive isn’t in her vocabulary. When she subsequently researched an Atlanta college she had applied to, she found the girls openly engaged in the city, dancing, having fun, and clearly taking advantage of the environment surrounding the campus—no dorm rooms with drinking there.
This made me wonder how many students were doing the same thing in their decision process. So, I invited a small group of seniors to my house for dessert, and was further educated on the other side of the world of social networking on the Web—and use of the Internet in decisionmaking. The girls openly shared what they have done online to research a decision.
One young woman had researched our recent graduates and said she could tell the differences between campuses where they were attending college. It was a matter of what they were doing, she explained. The contrast between one coeducational private university in Florida and a well-known women’s college in Atlanta was palpable to her, she said.
Another student researched friends at a popular Ivy League school. “There were photos of these friends of mine dressed in goofy outfits on the Metro,” she said. “There was nothing to suggest they had anything better to do in their free time—and yet they’re in a great city!”
All of the young women said that pictures on these Web pages can tell them a lot. One, who compared two state universities in Virginia, said she could immediately tell which college was more diverse and which was more conservative, and she was able to discern how much students were being stressed out or challenged academically through their comments about the intensity of courses and homework.
Combining various aspects of the Web was also a topic. One young woman found a student on Facebook.com who was majoring in zoology at a small Midwestern college to which she was considering applying. The student’s page led her to his blog, where he writes every day about his classes. This gave her an insider’s view of what the zoology program at the school is like, which in turn influenced her to apply for early-decision admission there.
This same student had chosen our boarding school over another after having researched the students of each online. She said the international enrollment at the other school made up a large percentage of the student population, and that she wanted a better balance in diversity.
According to these young women, a natural path for many teenagers applying to colleges is to visit a college search engine such as Peterson’s or the College Board, develop a list of schools, then visit MySpace or Facebook, and then go to RateMyProfessors.com to get the full picture of an institution. Many also connect to personal blogs and Web sites, such as Campusdirt.com, to get what they call the “totally raw information.”
In a “Periscope” item in a January issue of Newsweek, 24-year-old Andrew Romano spoke to what he calls Generation Internet: “The grown-ups are watching. One day, of course, we’ll be the grown-ups—and living online will be normal.”
So, as we confidently write about these social-networking sites and give the students in our lives fair warning about lost job opportunities and college rejections tied to graphic photos and comments on MySpace, we also need to realize that we are, at least partly, out of the loop. And the joke may be on us. While we scramble to fill our schools with students to pay the bills, they may be rejecting us based on what they learn on those same sites—through friends, and friends of friends, and the whole online world they continue to help propagate.
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as About Face