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.