Our committee on technology use wrote the following article to help explain social network sites to the teachers and staff in our community. What explanations have you found particular helpful/unhelpful at your school?
Understanding Social Network Sites
Catlin Gabel Technology Advisory Group
Last fall, the Technology Advisory Group (TAG) distributed a survey to solicit your advice about a vision for technology at Catlin Gabel. A number of you asked about social network sites: what are they, why are they popular, and what can we do about them? TAG devoted some time this year to study these questions. While we did not find simple answers, we did find a great variety of “expert” perspectives that helped us better frame the issue. We found several passages in these articles particularly helpful.
Social network sites (SNS) put people in contact with each other. You can maintain a personal profile, create links to “friends,” and share information with them. Online communities have existed since at least 1985, with the founding of The Well. Some of today’s leading social network sites include Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Ning. To better understand one, register a new account for yourself, and then search for “Catlin Gabel!”
Global Education Collaborative: http://globaleducation.ning.com/
Independent School Educators Network: http://isenet.ning.com/
What value do social network sites have for our students? Are they simply time-wasters?
When it comes to socializing with friends, youth prefer in-person (unregulated) encounters. They turn to SNSs when they can’t get together with their friends en masse or when they can’t get together without surveilling adults. They are desperately craving an opportunity to connect with their friends; not surprisingly, their use of anything that enables socialization while at school is deeply desired. 
Bridging social capital reflects the benefits we receive from our “weak ties” — people we don’t know very well but who provide us with useful information and ideas. Undergraduates who used Facebook intensively had higher bridging social capital scores than those who didn’t, and our longitudinal data show that Facebook use preceded these social capital gains. 
How does classroom management change? The above quotes help explain students’ motivation for using Facebook during class, but they do not help guide us toward particular classroom management strategies.
What effects do social network technologies have on our students’ social interactions with others?
Weak ties (e.g., casual acquaintances, colleagues) may not be reliable for long-term support; their strength instead is in providing a wide range of perspectives, information, and opportunities. As society becomes increasingly dynamic, with access to information playing a growing role, having many diverse connections will be key. 
While all humans need to feel connected to each other or to some cause, there are also times when we simply want to disconnect, and disconnecting is becoming increasingly hard thanks to social networking technology. 
How concerned should we be about online cruelty and privacy?
For teens, who can be viciously competitive, networking sites that feature a list of one’s best friends and space for everyone to comment about you can be an unpleasant venue for social humiliation and bullying. These sites can make the emotional landmines of adolescence concrete and explicit. 
It’s a lot harder to accept that social media is mirroring and magnifying all of the good, bad, and ugly about today’s society, shoving it right back in our faces in the hopes that we might face the underlying problems. Technology does not create bullying; it simply makes it more visible and much harder for adults to ignore. 
Our students are growing up in an increasingly interconnected world, mediated by social web technologies. The better we understand this landscape, the better we will be able to adopt the pieces that best support teaching and learning, relate to our students’ social needs, and manage a changing classroom environment.
1. boyd, danah. “The Economist Debate on Social ‘Networking’”. Zephoria January 15, 2008 http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2008/01/15/the_economist_d.html
2. Ellison, Nichole as quoted in Dubner, Stephen J. “Is MySpace Good for Society? A Freakonomics Quorum” New York Times February 15, 2008 http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/15/is-myspace-good-for-society-a-freakonomics-quorum/?hp
3. Donath, Judith, as quoted in ibid.
4. Chazin, Steve, as quoted in ibid.
5. Donath, Judith, as quoted in ibid
6. boyd, danah, as quoted in ibid.
boyd, danah, and Ellison, Nichole. Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship <http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html>
Lenhart, Amanda. Madden, Mary. Macgill, Alexandra Rankin. Smith, Aaron. Pew Internet Life Report: Teens and Social Media <http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/230/report_display.asp>
VanPetten, Vanessa. For Parents: Why do Teens Use Social Networking Sites? (video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6YT6sEDZiE
The Economist: Debate: Social Networking. http://www.economist.com/debate/index.cfm?action=summary&debate_id=3