Facebook and Collegiality: A Serendipitous Social Niche

The best thing about Facebook for academics is that it's not e-mail. It's not a phone call, either, nor a date for lunch, it's not chat, nor -- of course -- US mail. However, it is a way to greet a colleague as if she or he is on your own campus: a wave at a distance, a hello at the corner burrito place, a honk as you both leave the campus parking lot. It's staying in touch with minimal commitment. Informal collegiality has been extended over the miles.

IT as a Humanizing Technology

Information technology is always surprising us in ways like this. It's the serendipitous discovery of new ways to interact that makes technology ever fascinating: All predictions about the human use of technology have been wrong; most popular uses were serendipitous discoveries. A commonly accepted perception of technology is that it somehow de-humanizes us; instead it is infinitely humanizing.

It is in our own discovery of ourselves and how complex we are that technology has gifted us. We found out that our natural speech was not as easily programmed as we thought 40 years ago. We found out that our cognition is not so easily replicated in artificial intelligence. And, we have found that human personality and character expressed communicatively can be infinitely nuanced.

Finding Old Friends

My having changed fields a few years ago meant I lost track of dozens of colleagues who I used to see regularly at conferences. But in my Facebook pages, slowly these old friends began to re-appear. With these re-discovered colleagues, I haven't had to explain all the intervening years but just let them know I'm still around, doing ok, and happy to hear from them again. They can look at my friends, see my social and academic context now, and therefore become part of an extended social milieu not possible a few years ago.

For we, ahem, Facebook habitués, we don't put up formal studio shots, but informal pictures taken by relatives. My current photo features my granddaughter while I'm a shadowy smiling presence behind. I am embedded. Just the context says so much about me that I don't need to spend much time writing messages.

An Existential Challenge in a Simple Question

One of the options that Facebook offers is to say what you are doing right now and update that frequently -- in about 20 words. At first, I thought it would be really self-indulgent to keep posting what I was doing every day, so I spurned that option. I thought, "Who cares that I'm worrying about the weeds in my tomato patch?" In fact, no one does. But, again, there's that serendipity. The communication act is the key: Just that I've updated what I'm doing "32 minutes ago," emphasizes my social presence. People know I'm there reading what they were doing 32 minutes ago.

What I didn't anticipate was finding out how hard it is to think what you want to say in those 20 words. Doing the updates forces a self-reflection that is different than a diary -- how do I encapsulate myself in 20 words at this moment in time (as in "Trent is listening to his daughter's baby shower crowd just a floor above")?

Wasting Time

Yes, people do "waste" time on Facebook (whatever we mean by that). And, it can become an obsession. This says more about humans, however, than about Facebook. It is a social space and humans are creating the space just as they do all public spaces. For academia, however, this space is a golden city. As transient and distributed as we are, we academics need Facebook and more to sustain informal collegiality over distance. Those who have re-discovered me on Facebook will be much more open to an e-mail about professional inquiries than if my e-mail was a bolt from the past.

This informal collegiality through Facebook is educational value that needs no testing or assessment -- any more than a 'hello' in the hall does. Of course, once we academics become too present in Facebook, whither go yon youngsters?

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