Vote for MySpace

Rhea KellyEvery major presidential candidate now has a profile on MySpace.com. Should higher ed be there too?

At last count, Barack Obama had 102,604 more friends than I do. MySpace friends, that is. That's more than all other presidential candidates' MySpace friends combined, and Senator Obama's friend numbers are growing dramatically every day. What's more, people are taking notice. At tech-President.com, bloggers are tracking and commenting on the weekly changes in candidates' MySpace friend counts, YouTube views, unique website visitors, and more. And in the past two months, techPresident has been cited by such news outlets as ABC, USA Today, and Newsweek.

MySpace itself recently jumped into the spotlight by announcing that the site will hold a virtual primary election, open to all MySpace users, on Jan. 1 and 2, 2008, to gauge where the candidates stand. Statistics suggest that this is a worthwhile endeavor: comScore Media Metrics reports that nearly 65 million Americans visit MySpace every month, and more than 85 percent of them are of voting age. Come January, every news reporter and campaign manager will no doubt be poring over those MySpace primary results, in the hope that they will translate into real votes.

What does this mean to higher ed? If politicians see social networking on MySpace as the new route to constituent engagement, it follows that MySpace could be ideal for student/educator communication. Why, then, did my husband, Steve, a PhD candidate at UCLA who is serving as a teaching assistant this quarter, recently up his MySpace privacy settings? Because, he announced, "I don't want my students to find me." For Steve, the potential benefits of academic social networking are outweighed by the desire for personal privacy. Indeed, that loss of privacy can have serious consequences: Take, for example, the growing number of college graduates who now find themselves passed over for job opportunities because they documented past undesirable behavior on their MySpace pages, for all the world (including future employers) to see.

There are other issues as well: Last year, Del Mar College (TX) blocked MySpace on the campus network because the heavy site traffic was slowing network performance. And according to the latest Campus Computing Project survey, security is an issue that can't be ignored: 9.9 percent of 540 responding institutions reported security incidents involving social networking sites during the 2005-2006 academic year.

Despite the challenges, colleges and universities—and their instructors— need to add social networking technologies to their toolboxes, not only to interact with students on an entirely new level, but also to take advantage of the institutional exposure that a site like MySpace can provide. If politicians are connecting with voters and getting attention via MySpace, it's not too great a leap to imagine a university's MySpace presence—or even its number of MySpace friends—becoming headline news. Such publicity could influence high school students' college application decisions, or dramatically impact the number of students who enroll in a given course, for instance. How many MySpace friends will your institution have?

Rhea Kelly, Managing Editor
What have you seen and heard? Send to: kgrayson@1105media.com.

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