Is Facebook this generation’s Rolling Stones?

I saw an interesting piece on Frontline (PBS) last night called Growing Up Online. I was interested in watching the program because of all the social networking talk that has been at the forefront of academic librarianship in the last year or so; it’s also been mentioned several times on this blog. The Frontline piece talked about how teens are basically growing up virtually; submerged in the online worlds of sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Youtube. The piece revealed several interesting, but perhaps not surprising, “facts” about this new generation of online teens: kids and teens spend almost all of their free time (in school and out) online, virtual networking is the number one way this group communicates with one another (it even tops email), and incidences of “cyber-bullying” are on the rise (disturbing, but true).

The piece also talked about how cheating is a source of struggle in high schools due to the ease of use and the accessibility of materials on the Internet. Several high schools students interviewed claimed to use SparkNotes, a set of free online study guides, almost exclusively while doing homework. One boy announced that he never looks at the actual books assigned, and instead was able to “read” Romeo and Juliet via SparkNotes in just 9 pages. He said that if there were 27 hours in the day, he would gladly read Romeo and Juliet, but unfortunately there are only 24 hours. The sad thing was, he actually seemed sincere. I found this especially interesting considering the recent uproar about Steve Jobs’s comment that people don’t read anymore. I don’t think this one teenage boy can speak for an entire generation, but it’s a little disconcerting to find out that many teens consider “reading” to be the consultation of a study guide.

Since libraries started creating Facebook and MySpace pages, I have felt rather conflicted about the whole idea. I understand the theory of wanting to connect with students where they are (because, obviously, Facebook is where they spend most of their time), but I’ve always wondered if it can be truly affective. I’ll be honest: I’m 25, I use Facebook to stay connected with friends, and if I were still in college, I wouldn’t be “friending” my professors and librarians. Hearing the interviews on Frontline only confirmed my suspicions that teens and young adults don’t want authorities online. They’re very secretive and protective of their niche, and they just don’t want the adults intruding. I believe this is true of any adult: parents, teachers, etc.

The title of this post is in reference to a comment in the Frontline piece that “the Internet has created the greatest generation gap since rock ‘n’ roll.” Associate producer Caitlin McNally, who is in her 20s, noted that even she felt somewhat out of touch with the students she interviewed:

Maybe even more striking to me was how social networking sites have become fully integrated into kids’ lives. I didn’t build my first profile until after college; it felt underground and novel, like being in on a joke. I’d never even heard the term “social networking.” Having a profile on the Internet was ancillary to my “real” life, while for the kids we met, it has become a fundamental element of what they do each day and how they represent who they are.

I’m with Ms. McNally on this one. I am surprised at times to feel a disconnect with the students I’m teaching, when many of them are less than a decade younger than I am. When I think about it, though, I doubt many of the students would want to hang out with me in real life; why would they want to hang out with me virtually? Thus, I’ve come to this conclusion: instead of “joining” students in their virtual space, I think we should try to focus on catering to their virtual learning styles. Whether this means offering more online workshops, or virtual reference services, or blogs and podcasts, I’m not sure. I’m just not convinced that implanting our libraries into Facebook and MySpace is making quite the splash we think it’s making. But, hey, I’m just a new librarian!

6 thoughts on “Is Facebook this generation’s Rolling Stones?”

  1. Melissa, first, you have a valuable perspective on this. Please don’t discount your opinion because you’re new (which you seemed to do in your last line).

    Having said that… I don’t completely agree as I don’t think this has to be an either/or decision for a library or any individual librarian. There is value for librarians to be on Facebook (or MySpace if that’s where their users are). First, a librarian who uses Facebook, if only to connect with other librarians, has a much better understanding of his or her users. Academic librarians in particular need to know how students spend their time online. How do we cater to these evolving learning styles if we don’t even know how social networks function?

    This is how I use Facebook now. I got on it over a year ago to see what it was like, and now, especially because I’m overseas, I use it not as a tool to connect with students, but as a way to stay connected with my friends, primarily from library school, many of whom are on Facebook. And I’m over 30. And so are many of my also-ancient library school friends.

    I agree that librarians shouldn’t be out there friending patrons. But many librarians have set up place pages for their libraries, so students can become “fans” of the library. I’ve just set up a page like this at my library, and we already have a few dozen fans. That’s a great way for students to get our hours, contact information, etc, and it helps them feel more connected to the physical library, even when they’re online at home.

    Finally, there is also a role to play for librarians in helping our students understand privacy implications of social networks. Despite their technological sophistication, many otherwise bright students aren’t doing enough to protect themselves online. I’ve shown students how to ramp up their privacy settings, which I know how to do because I follow these technologies myself.

  2. I don’t think this one teenage boy can speak for an entire generation, but it’s a little disconcerting to find out that many teens consider “reading” to be the consultation of a study guide.

    My (perhaps overly) cynical comment: The current emphasis on standardized testing, combined with the understanding that the point of high school is to get into college to buy a degree that will hopefully provide more economic return than the debt incurred, gives students little incentive to have any other view.

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m 24, and even as a librarian I have zero interest in friending my director or any of the other faculty/staff from my university who have Facebook. Facebook is for friends– for social networking. Students don’t want us there trying to be cool.

    I did create a MySpace page for our library about a year ago because I kept hearing that we needed to have social networking profiles or die. I put up notices near the computers about this great new resource. We got one friend, who appeared to have graduated about 10 years ago. If students want the library’s hours, they seem to realize that there’s a link to our website on the university’s homepage.

    As you observed, there is a lot to be gained from understanding how students are using these tools so we can better understand and cater to their learning styles and preferences. But that’s very different from jumping into their turf and trying to get accepted.

  4. Warning: I’m about to appear really, really old.

    I remember The Grownups being all atwitter about the amount of time teenagers spent on the telephone. It was a running joke in popular culture. It may have been a cause for concern, but it mostly was met with bemusement. I also remember lots of students who I went to school with using Cliff Notes routinely. All those people who supposedly grew up reading Shakespeare and Silas Marner? Probably as many of them were doing an end-run around reading as the fans of Sparknotes today.

    – the Geezer

  5. Although I share your concern about assuming that students want to “join” librarians in their virtual communities, I think it’s important to distinguish between creating personal or institutional profiles and developing library-specific applications for use primarily in Facebook. I wrote a recent post about survey results we’ve received at Ohio University demonstrating that students are quite positive about the idea of library search/help applications in Facebook, which 86% of students use regularly (as opposed to only 36% in MySpace). This aligns with your idea of “catering to their virtual learning styles” – because students are constantly engaged with Facebook while working on other tasks, many find the idea of a library search or Ask a Librarian application as a major convenience, and one that would prevent them from needing to constantly navigate from one interface to another. Of our 3500 or so survey respondents, 33% answered ‘yes,’ 22% ‘no’, and 28% ‘not sure’ to whether they would use a library application in Facebook – while these numbers may not exactly be overwhelming, they do represent a promising market for a tool that is quite easily developed, and voluntary to download. In the words of one participant, “I use facebook for a lot of things, and if I could use one site for everything that would be great.”

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