Dude, I Just Colleagued My Dean

May 19th, 2010 |

CC licensed photo by lets.book

CC licensed photo by lets.book

What role should social networking play within online academic environments? Should faculty members, administrators, and students be able to friend one another on campus-wide blogging platforms? Is the term “friend,” used as either a noun or a verb, insufficiently serious for the august members of the academy? Or is friending so firmly established that any other term will sound hopelessly contrived?

These are not idle questions. As Project Director of The CUNY Academic Commons, an academic social network that connects the twenty-three campuses of The City University of New York system, I am trying to gauge the comfort-level of my local scholarly community with these issues. Our site uses uses BuddyPress, a set of plugins for WordPress Multi-User, to enable a social network that includes friend-based connections between members. So far, at least, we haven’t altered the default language of friending on BuddyPress, but that doesn’t mean we won’t or shouldn’t.

When we first unveiled the Commons to the CUNY community at the December 2009 CUNY IT Conference, one audience member expressed discomfort with the idea of friending colleagues. This prospective member of our site found the “friend” terminology a bit inappropriate to the academic sphere; more than that, though, he felt uncomfortable with the intimacy that friendship implied. He didn’t want to “friend” his Provost or receive a friendship request from a grad student working in his office. He just wanted to work with them.

So, one question I have is whether some term besides “friend” would be more appropriate for a work environment, even an informal one that includes social ventures like CUNY Pie. Would everyone be happier if we were colleaguing one another on our academic networks?

Of course, friending — the bi-directional, mutually affirmed confirmation of a relationship — is not the only model for connection in a social network. Twitter utilizes an asymmetrical “follow” system in which one user can follow, or subscribe to, the updates of one another without both members agreeing to a shared relationship. Similarly, sites like Flickr and Delicious allow users to add others to their networks without requiring a mutual decision by both members. LinkedIn, meanwhile, allows members to mark one another as colleagues, co-workers, or classmates. Academic.edu goes both ways: in addition to designating others on the site as colleagues, members can “follow” the work of other scholars.

On the Commons, we’ve been so busy developing the site that we haven’t really initiated this discussion among our users. Some conversation began over on Boone Gorges’s blog, where Boone and I began to hash out these issues in a post that really had little to do with the conversation that followed (+1 to me for hijacking the comment thread).

Obviously, individual academic communities may have different answers to these questions, but I figure that as long as we have some of the best minds in the Digital Humanities and Emerging Media gathered together in one place this weekend, we might as well take a crack at them, too.

So: will you be my friend colleague some-other-term-that-expresses-a-vague-and-perhaps-specious-connection? I hope so, because a request is already on its way.

Comments Feed

3 Responses to “Dude, I Just Colleagued My Dean”

  1. Boone Gorges Says:

    Cool idea, Matt. I’ll be anxious to see what comes out of this conversation. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed in your penultimate paragraph: it’s highly likely that the “right” conventions, insofar as there are any “right” ones, will have to emerge naturally in each individual community, and the conventions will probably differ between them. Having a larger conversation about how to frame questions about the relationship between the ‘social’ and the ‘professional’ will go a long way toward informing the formation of those conventions.

  2. mkgold Says:

    Thanks, Boone. I think you’re right that the larger issue here is something we’ve discussed often in recent weeks — what happens to professional communities as they become more social? (maybe we can call this the “CUNY Pie Effect.” And it might be worth wrapping this particular topic about friending into a session that covers a range of issues related to that larger umbrella.

    One thing I’d like to make clear is that although the semantics are important, this issue does not solely concern terminology. I’m also interested in discussing the specific functionalities that might be developed to help members of a professional community collaborate and share. So, perhaps one concrete issue that could be both yakked and hacked is the question of exactly what user data-sharing functions should be available between connected members of a network. For instance, how can we build new functionality into something like BuddyPress, for instance, that would allow members of a group or two friends to share Zotero libraries or dropbox folders?

  3. Sharon M. Leon Says:

    Can I say how bummed I am that I’m not going to be at THATCamp for more than Saturday morning? I think that this is a hugely important discussion. I’m working on a number of variations on this theme in larger venues — history teachers generally, members of waning professional organizations. I’m concerned about building a level of buy-in for a system that can function on local relationships (ties within districts, schools, departments), but doesn’t have to (ties based on fields of interest, pedagogical perspectives, etc.). Zotero plugins seems like it will be key in the long-run.


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