Students and Facebook: The Empowerment Factor

Adolescence 101:
There is a point at which a t(w)een doesn't care what you're saying. That point is reached if a student has the attention and approval of whomever s/he is trying to win the attention/approval of. If that means dissing you, consider yourself dissed.

It is SO crucial to have a balanced view of social networks today. Actually, let's narrow it down to Facebook: especially the Importance of Facebook in the lives of teens and how it changes kids' perceptions. I recently overheard a student say, "Facebook is everything!"

Teens crave one thing over all other things-acceptance and approval of their peers. Especially peers they deem to be 'popular' or 'cool'. In research I did 10 years ago middle-schoolers admitted to this in interviews. When pushed to describe what popular meant and who decided what or whom was popular, they hadn't a clue. See, it's not an intellectual thing for them. We adults, especially those in academia, tend to intellectualize stuff. I am seriously guilty of this but I keep trying to understand the reality from a teen perspective since I teach teens. If I find myself in a moment of frustration in a classroom with students it is usually because I have a goal, a plan, an objective and students just don't seem to be buying in on an intellectual level. It happens also (and primarily) because social connection trumps intellectual engagement.

Back to Facebook. Facebook was designed for exactly that: social connection. Connection to real people and the real things they are saying and doing. As simple as that seems, it was revolutionary when Mark Zuckerberg coded theFacebook from his Harvard dorm room. Incidentally, this makes social networking as we know it today to be only about 6 years old. Amazing, really (to extend our disbelief: not a single i-pod existed 9 years and one month ago-we just past the anniversary of it's launch).

When a t(w)een joins Facebook, they are looking for social connection(s). Lots of them. To them, that's a goal. They're into quantity not quality. Here's where student use and adult use of Facebook differs (well, to some, anyway). Students will accept someone as a "FRIEND" even if they have no real association with someone in real life. If they know them (as in, they go to the same school) that's good enough. This, however, can lead to trouble. Some teens have few barriers. Once accepted as friend, they take that as license to take the friendship offline even if it isn't desired. This partly demonstrates what I call the Empowerment Factor.

Back in the day developers of products used to bolster the credibility of their products by advertising that it was "seen on TV!". As Seen On TV became somehow (?) synonymous with "famous" and therefore "popular" and therefore "trustworthy" even though it meant none of those things. It meant only one thing in reality-someone paid good money to get it on TV. That was traditional advertising. But because TV was only where famous actors "lived" it was considered a hallowed domain by a lethargic public gazing into the boob tube but realizing that, if they're lucky they might, once in their life experience Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame". Might as well buy the product that was seen on TV . Gives me a visceral relationship with what was seen "out there". Kind a of a voodoo thing, really.

Fast Forward to now. Our students do not live in a seen on TV world. They know that with the right tools they can be TV. They can achieve fame whenever they choose as long as they have eyes to witness them. Hence, the desirable Huge Friend List. A huge friend list is synonymous with popularity. A huge friend list has its privileges. Add controversial content (statements, photos, videos) to your Facebook account and watch yourself become FAMOUS (or You Tube account: see Fred Figglehorn who has achieved 1 million friends and 99 million page views!)

Famous is exactly what matters in a purely digital online realm. One of the highest paid NEW jobs today is the job SEO (Search Engine Optimization) Engineer or SEO Marketing Specialist. What this means is simple: make one's web site appear in the first page of a Google (or You Tube or Facebook) search. They ask: How many people stop in at a page and view it for at least a few minutes? How can I increase that number. This is how Google, seemingly without effort, makes zillions on advertising. In a Web2.0 world, the popularity of a singular social network page automatically optimizes that page! It's just how the Google algorhythms are written. No need for SEO if you have controversial or simply "a lot" of content and popularity which drives traffic to your site by word of mouth or other means such as "liking" on Facebook or sharing via e-mail. Fred will be a rich 20-something. He won't need to go to college. He rambled on in front of a camera repeatedly and kids started watching. He created a character and sold 'merchandise'. And now there's a DVD to be seen on You Tube!

Back to Facebook again: Students want to be popular. Once tons of online friends are established, there's an audience (for better or worse). Unfortunately, entertaining that audience sometimes becomes a priority for some students. This is where the Empowerment Factor goes bad. Students sometimes decide that one way to be popular is to video tape controversial things that will attract eyeballs. Here are some examples on You Tube:

Like classroom teachers
Or fights (note the laughter and provocation of the fight. Note also the 672,000 and counting views for this video)

Videos and media can just as easily be shared inside the "safe" world of Facebook where hundreds of "friends" can "LIKE" and therefore promote further bad behavior--such as provoking fights so that they can be videotaped.

This inside Social Network is largely closed to us and creates a potentially threatening, unseen force in the classroom. Students are bonded by unspoken 'wrongs'. It's a wink, wink kind of scenario. Once in class and proximal to a "Facebook Friend" in class, the normal socializing that would happen takes on epic proportions because of the Empowerment Factor. Even if one wasn't the creator of something controversial and popular inside a social network, it is important to t(w)eens to at least know about these things. How do you share that you know about something? You talk about it. In class.

Many of us feel that we're losing our student's attention these days. I posit that The Empowerment Factor of Facebook and other socio-digital means of connecting + t(w)een desire to be liked and popular may be adding much fuel to the fire of disconnection with school (teachers). Don't get me wrong. There's potential for much good. But leaving Media Literacy out of the curriculum of schools is a tragic 21st century mistake.

There is a point at which an adolescent doesn't care what you're saying. That point is reached if a student has the attention and approval of one's Facebook friends in class. They're looking for content to gossip about and upload. Who's next? What's next? I'm reading: Students and Facebook: The Empowerment Factor Tweet this!

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