My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Is Facebook Destroying the American College Experience?

Sitting with a group of graduating high school seniors last summer, the conversation turned to college roommates. Although headed off to different schools, they had a similar experience of learning their roommate assignment and immediately turning to Facebook to investigate that person. Some had already begun developing deep, mediated friendships while others had already asked for roommate transfers. Beyond roommates, all had used Facebook to find other newly minted freshman, building relationships long before they set foot on campus.

At first blush, this seems like a win for students. Going off to college can be a scary proposition, full of uncertainty, particularly about social matters. Why not get a head start building friends from the safety of your parent’s house?

What most students (and parents) fail to realize is that the success of the American college system has less to do with the quality of the formal education than it does with the social engineering project that is quietly enacted behind the scenes each year. Roommates are structured to connect incoming students with students of different backgrounds. Dorms are organized to cross-breed the cultural diversity that exists on campus. Early campus activities are designed to help people encounter people whose approach to the world is different than theirs. This process has a lot of value because it means that students develop an appreciation for difference and build meaningful relationships that will play a significant role for years to come. The friendships and connections that form on campuses shape future job opportunities and help create communities that change the future. We hear about famous college roommates as exemplars. Heck, Facebook itself was created by a group of Harvard roommates. But the more basic story is how people learn to appreciate difference, often by suffering through the challenges of entering college together.

When pre-frosh turn to Facebook before arriving on campus, they do so to find other people who share their interests, values, and background. As such, they begin a self-segregation process that results in increased “homophily” on campuses. Homophily is a sociological concept that refers to the notion that birds of a feather stick together. In other words, teens inadvertently undermine the collegiate social engineering project of creating diverse connections through common experiences. Furthermore, because Facebook enables them to keep in touch with friends from high school, college freshman spend extensive time maintaining old ties rather than building new ones. They lose out on one of the most glorious benefits of the American collegiate system: the ability to diversify their networks.

Facebook is not itself the problem. The issue stems from how youth use Facebook and the desire that many youth have to focus on building connections to people that think like they do. Building friendships with people who have different political, cultural, religious beliefs is hard. Getting to know people whose life stories seem so foreign is hard. And yet, such relationship building across lines of difference can also be tremendously transformative.

To complicate matters more, parents and high school teachers have beaten into today’s teens’ heads that internet strangers are dangerous. As such, even when teens are turning to Facebook or other services to find future college friends, they are skittish about people who are discomforting to them because they’ve been socialized into being wary of anyone they talk with. The fear-mongering around strangers plays a subtle but powerful role in discouraging teens from doing the disorienting work of getting to know someone truly unfamiliar.

It’s high time we recognize that college isn’t just about formalized learning and skills training, but also a socialization process with significant implications for the future. The social networks that youth build in college have long-lasting implications for youth’s future prospects. One of the reasons that the American college experience is so valuable is because it often produces diverse networks that enable future opportunities. This is also precisely what makes elite colleges elite; the networks that are built through these institutions end up shaping many aspects of power. When less privileged youth get to know children of powerful families, new pathways of opportunity and tolerance are created. But when youth use Facebook to maintain existing insular networks, the potential for increased structural inequity is great.

Photo by Daniel Borman

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19 comments to Is Facebook Destroying the American College Experience?

  • tz

    Tyler Clementi might have rejected Dharun Ravi as a roommate. And still be alive.

    I’m not sure if shoving diversity down the throats of freshmen is not unlike hazing.

  • “Dorms are organized to cross-breed the cultural diversity that exists on campus. Early campus activities are designed to help people encounter people who’s approach to the world is different than theirs.”

    Mmm… that does not sound like my college experience, haha. Colleges aren’t so diverse at all both in terms of race and socioeconomic background–this is why affirmative action policies are still in place! Besides, regardless of the diversity of the student body, students tend to become close to classmates who are (culturally, economically, politically, socially, etc.) similar to them.

    Now does Facebook hinder this process? I actually think that Facebook, by allowing “weak links” to exist, lets people who’d never be friends IRL be “friends” (Facebook friends) online; my online social circle is much more diverse than my offline group of friends (who tend to share the very same socio-economic profile). These online friends typically have a pretty different background from the Facebook user, but they can still interact and are actually given many opportunities by Facebook to do exactly so.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Thank you.

  • plantingoaks

    Much of this effect may be major specific.
    I was in the engineering college, and found socializing much easier in school, as suddenly everyone thought like me – a pretty common experience I’ve found.
    Then again, engineering degrees have always shared almost as much with vocational training as they have with liberal arts degrees.

  • Margaret

    I think you are seeing this issue too much through your own experiences. If I remember right, high school was challenging for you and college was freedom. It’s not that way for everyone.

    There is *much* value to retaining friendships developed in K-12. Some of my best friends continue to be the ones with whom I forged close ties through the tumult of middle and high school — despite the fact we rarely see one another. This sort of connection was only made possible because of the internet and the ability to stay in touch during and after college. Even just five years before we went to college, ubiquitous internet was non-existent and people were much more likely to lose their high school friends through lack of contact.

    The first semester of college is a really rough shock for many students and being able to retain something of a social safety net can really help them adjust to the change. This is perhaps the one time in someone’s life when they’re expected to completely make it on their own without knowing *anyone* and it’s a bit much to ask, in my opinion. (I’ve personally done that sort of move three times and it’s sucked for the at least the first several months every time.)

    And finally, while having diversity is nice and all, being too different from your roommate can lead to massive conflict that can cause a lot of emotional stress and affect academic performance. (One of my friends at Brown had a horrible experience.) It’s not hard for a college to allow roommates to be homogenous within a room and make a hallway or floor diverse. I would prefer to have a safe place to escape from the world and then emerge to talk to my diverse neighbors when I’m relaxed and rested than be forced to deal with regular conflict in what’s supposed to be my safe space.

  • David

    The issue here, I think, is not college. College is just a handy example.

    My wife and I moved to Chicago 6 years ago. We’re reasonably social people who came from a deep network of friends and family back in Minneapolis, where I did grad school, and where my wife grew up. 6 years later, we basically have no social networks in Chicago. We have casual friends and a few better relationships, but the internet enabled us to maintain our rich networks back home ever after we moved.

    So we’ve shifted into the atomized modern family in which we scatter from our home towns and home countries (the 20th century story), but now are not forced to rebuild when we arrive at our new destination.

  • What evidence do you have that this phenonom is occuring? This appears to be more of an untested thesis.

    In addition, my undergraduate institution, which I assume is not unique in this regard, sent out a pre-school questionaire and placed roomates together that had interests in common. This was before Facebook.

    Also, a lot of new ties are made amongst classmates. Are you suggesting that people are using Facebook to meet similar people like them before they go to school and then using that to influence which classes they take and which majors they pursue?

    From one person who studies social networks to another, I find your argument lacking without further data and evidence.

  • Danah,
    Thanks for an interesting blog post. I am interested to find out that people seem surprised that university or college is more than books and learning. Education fully understood is about shaping the person and university life does that as much in the classroom as well as outside of it. In a sense, it shapes the person’s character.

    I explored that idea in this post, which I would be interested in your comments given your professional position.http://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/what-is-the-university-in-an-age-of-social-media/

    In that post, I explore my concern that facebook and other social media technology undermine the learning that is essential to a liberal-democratic republic by prioritising one type of learning, social, over all others.

    At the same time, I was struck by your use of the concept “mediated friendships”. If anything our friendships must have a physical basis in reality, ie we need to meet, for it to exist. Otherwise, it is not friendship properly understood. (To illustrate consider exchanging fan mail with a famous person. Are you now “friends” or is that a “mediated” friendship?) The deeper question, though, implicit in your blog post is what social media is revealing about, and thereby shaping, human nature. In many ways, social media allows an aspect of our human nature, contained within (and by) the physical expression of friendship, to emerge. I do not mean simply that we become more narcisstic, even though that is a symptom, but rather I mean the underlying element of what it means to be human and what we understand to be human, as expressed through social media.

    I explored that topic here: http://lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/does-social-media-make-us-less-than-human-human-nature-as-a-social-object/

    I would be interested in your views on that topic as well.

    Thanks again for a stimulating blog post. I will be interested in how you develop your ideas, perhaps there is a research project behind the blog post?

    Lawrence

  • Hey danah, some colleagues and I just had a paper accepted to Computers & Education that you might be interested in. It looks at social adjustment and persistence at a liberal arts college with very high dropout rate. We found that two Facebook-based predictors–using the site to collaborate on schoolwork and the number of school-based Facebook friends one had–significantly predicted social adjustment to college, which in turn positively predicted persistence between first and second years. We believe this study lends some support to the idea that Facebook can help students form relationships with classmates and adjust to the college experience, which has historically been shown to be extremely important in determining whether or not a student remains at the university. I can send you a final version once we submit it to the journal.

  • Anna Watkins

    >>Facebook is not itself the problem. The issue stems from how youth use Facebook and the desire that many youth have to focus on building connections to people that think like they do.

    danah — I think that this is the heart of your discussion, and it’s the problem that almost all contemporary technology (and possibly old-school and prehistoric technology too) presents. It’s not the cell phone texting, it’s the ability to text all thought, however inane or unprocessed, 24/7. It’s not video games, it’s videogames to the exclusion of all other activity. It’s not online (or cable) news, it’s tailoring which news topics and biases come to your inbox, and which you prefer not to know. Etc.

    It’s not the people who have changed (at the deepest level), it that it’s more possible to appear to “go out into the world” without ever having to go out of a comfort zone. Youth have always wanted to maintain connections — back in the ‘olden days,’ the teenager in the house monopolized the phone talking all evening to friends they’d seen only hours ago. They stalked the college mailbox waiting for a letter from the hometown sweetheart. They just don’t have to anymore.

  • Josh

    Part of the issue you raise, I feel, relates to a point brought up in Charles Ess’ “Digital Media Ethics.” Ess brings up the idea of “greased” information, i.e. the speed with which we can send out and obtain information causes us to think less about what we are actually doing. The speed in which students are able to obtain information through the web is incredibly fast. In turn, their patience for much slower methods of learning (researching in a book for example) is decreased. Since a Facebook account is much faster and expedient than waiting for college, the student opts for that approach. Perhaps the issue also lies with what students post to Facebook. It’s easy to make snap judgements based on what a person “likes” or what type of status update they post. However, it’s important to remember not all “traditional” college roommate situations work out preferably. There were plenty of fellow students who (when I entered college in 2009) wanted to be assigned to a different room even after meeting and having the “same experience” as their roommate. My mother had a roommate who listened to wolf howling on records before she went to sleep. There’s only a certain amount of difference in a roommate that people can tolerate. I think that we don’t give the youth enough credit when it comes to these issues. I don’t think that all college-age students are so engaged in the digital world that they refuse to experience the real one. Perhaps they just want to make their experience more enjoyable so they at least have a comfortable place to return to at the end of the day.

  • Ted

    I don’t know that the technology is the problem at all here. I was a part of the first college class (2008) that had Facebook in the summer before we matriculated (2004). I did indeed first meet I many of my classmates on Facebook; in fact, I met my wife on it. But while I used Facebook to build networks, I did not use it to select myself out of other networks. I wasn’t naive enough to think that I could make that kind of judgment based only on a digital profile. I didn’t request a different roommate just because mine was from Amman, Jordan; and if I had, my parents and my college would have laughed in my face.

    The problem is the helicopter parent who refuses to accept the beauty of the social experiment you described, who seeks still to insulate his or her child from all the discomforts that actually could cause them to grow, and who thereby teachers the child that discomfort and difference should be feared.

  • Honestly, I’m not convinced that the lives and experiences of our youth SHOULD be ours to conduct social experiments with. Your thesis makes sense if all student experiences are more or less equal and more or less risky. However, the reality is that we have students going into colleges and universities with existing identities that can have relative positions of privilege or power. For a white, middle-class, heterosexual, temporarily able-bodied, cisgender 18 year old, maybe what you’re describing is ideal. However, how can we put into this equation that a Muslim girl who is a hijabi may have a racist or xenophobic or Islamaphobic roommate? How can we adjust for the much-heightened rates of suicide and substance abuse in LGBT youth because they experience such widespread rejection? How can we justify putting those youth in a place of risk simply because we want people to “branch out” or “get out of their comfort zones”?

    The problem that you’re identifying, I think, is a social problem, not one with Facebook and not one with college students. In the US, we tend to homogonize our social circles, whether that is according to race, sexual orientation, class, level of education, etc. This is unquestionably limiting to how we interact with the world. However, this isn’t limited to 18-24 year olds (the primarily people to live in residential housing on college campuses), this is ALL OF US.

    I’m not willing to sacrifice vulnerable youth to see if maybe this forcing people together will help them get to know people unlike themselves. Instead, we need to be having conversations across age differences to discuss how we change this homogonizing culture and I don’t think that can be done without addressing deep-seeded systems of inequality.

  • Erin McJ

    This really surprised me because I already think of college as an institution that entrenches social structure! For many students, college represents the first time they’ve had the chance to select their own environment. I’d be surprised if the net effect of this weren’t increased homophily. And I’d bet that at different tiers of schooling you have different sorts of homophily going on. At elite schools, most everybody is privileged in one way or another; at non-elite four-year schools, the pool is largely regional, I think, so people are going to have stuff in common there too. And at both of these most people are going to be somewhere in the range of 18-25 years old. I’d bet that you see more meaningful diversity in the community college setting, actually, not just in a narrow ethnic sense but also in terms of age, personal history, family background and motivation for studying.

    (My own background, in case it is relevant: Private school, class of 2001.)

    What do you make of MOOCs? I don’t get the sense that they are a big threat to the kind of elite school your argument seems to be about, but do you think they represent a looming problem for socializing young people?

  • Laurence, above, makes an observation about mediated friendships, and while I am not danah, I see this sort of self- or same- managed mediation, whether human or technological, as a hindrance to diversity efforts.

    While in the short run, many people can make lots of positive reasons for why self screening should be needed or useful. There are always arguments for homophilic preferences, and usually these get based on fears, cultural myopia, (negative discrimination) or some practical concerns or positive discrimination (we’d make a great team).

    I think it should be noted that most dorm setting DO mediate their placements, albeit its a short-form evaluation, but someone else is checking for gross mismatches. And there is systems in place for moving people around. The key here, is self-mediated vs. externally mediated.

    And the placement personnel won’t always get it right. But they aren’t you, and they aren’t your parents or people knowing you and passing judgement on other people.

  • Hi Dinah,

    Unfortunately, the flip-side to the cross-breeding you describe is that college was often a place where freshman leaned that the intellectual hegemony of high school would extend to college. If you weren’t part of the majority culture, you ended up isolated, stuck in a place where (seemingly) everyone around you thought the same, or didn’t really think at all (as in “when I went to school, in Olympia…”). If FB and other technologies allow students to find fellow oddballs, this makes college a more diverse place, not less, as those with divergent views come out of hiding and find strength in community.

    Cheers!

  • Tim

    I agree with some of your points, Danah. But I sure would have liked to know that the dorm people were going to stick me with an antisocial fellow with really bad body odor before I moved in. Of course, I am in my 50s now and times change, but probably not with things like this.

  • Brooks

    Interesting post. Having spent time on campus as an undergrad and grad student and ultimately a Lecturer I think your perceptions may spawn additional research. I’m hearing more and more that community college, commuter schools and online higher ed is more of a consideration. Tools like Facebook make that decision easier for students while parents can rest easy with cheaper tuition and kids close to home. Unfortunately your post brought out more knee-jerk reactions from people rather thank thoughtful response.

  • Danah,

    I came to the party a few months late on this post, but I had to comment because I think your thesis is spot on. As part of my work for my dissertation, I’ve delved a bit into some related notions – Eli Pariser’s work on the “Filter Bubble” and back to group polarization and “enclaves,” as written by Sunstein (2002). The self-editing that is happening on the front end for pre-freshmen is likely exacerbated by some of the increasingly specialized aspects of major social media sites (such as algorithms that reinforce past behaviors – what you view, who you view, etc. guiding what the sites should display at your next logon).

    I hadn’t quite thought about this from the perspective that you present, though. Having worked in student affairs for a handful of years prior to my current program, I place great value in the intentional environments that we help create with our students. By allowing for such Facebook-mediated “customization,” we could really be doing some damage to the college experience. This could be of great importance going forward, thanks for this post.

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