During a meeting in late January, University of Iowa President David J. Skorton mentioned jokingly that he had read about thefacebook.com, the popular online social network, in The Washington Post. He was curious as to what the Web site was all about.
Iowa senior Lindsay Schutte, president of Iowa’s student body, responded that it was an extremely popular site and that the student body would probably like it a lot if he joined.
“I never thought he would take it seriously,” Schutte said.
Over a thousand friend requests and numerous “wall-postings” later, Skorton’s entrance into thefacebook.com community has caused quite a stir. Iowa students say they see the addition of Skorton to their “friends lists” as indicative of the close bond he has with the student body.
“It’s a really cool thing,” Natalie Wicklund, a University of Iowa student, said. “It’s neat that the president takes such an interest in the student body. It makes him more [accessible] — he’s right there on your computer screen.”
Once the domain of students only, thefacebook.com has begun to be used by faculty members, too. There are currently about 30 Yale faculty members with profiles on thefacebook.com, including a pair of residential college deans: Branford College Dean Thomas McDow and Saybrook College Dean Lisa Collins.
Many Iowa students have used this new outlet of communication to “message” Skorton about various campus concerns and questions, ranging from academic issues to complaints about a new stadium proposal, Wicklund said.
Schutte said that after Skorton joined thefacebook.com, she gave him a quick tutorial on the Web site, explaining how to use all of the functions, such as responding to messages, updating his profile and searching through groups. Since Skorton joined the Web site, many other Iowa professors and staff members followed suit, Schutte said.
“It really helps to break down barriers between students and faculty,” Schutte said.
Schutte said she was eager to have Skorton call Yale President Richard Levin to encourage him to create a profile on thefacebook.com. It seems, however, that Levin will need quite a bit of convincing.
“I think not,” Levin said, when asked about joining the site. “As I recall when [the Web site] first came out, I was actually poked by several people and asked to join and that sort of thing. But I thought it’s probably better left for students to sort out for themselves.”
Professor Seth Silberman, who teaches in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, was persuaded to join the online community in January by one of his students and by the presence of the growing “Seth Silberman Fan Club” group, currently with 22 members.
“Because of the age difference between students and faculty, there’s this perception that because we’re older, we’re not as Internet savvy,” Silberman said.
Silberman is clearly one of the more tech-savvy professors, as he encourages students to contact him via Instant Messenger or thefacebook.com if they have any questions or just want to chat.
“I don’t tend to peruse thefacebook.com too widely,” he said. “I basically use it more as a tool for students to get in touch with me.”
Philosophy professor Troy Cross joined thefacebook.com in December and now has 16 friends on the site.
“Posting a profile on thefacebook takes two minutes, but it sends a message that you’re a part of the same academic community as the students,” Cross said.
Cross added that he does not spend a lot of time on the site, though he said he would have loved it as an undergraduate.
Students have responded favorably to their teachers joining the thefacebook.com.
“I think it’s nice to feel like you’re actually friends with your professors,” said Ashley Linnenbank ’06, who is “friends” with Silberman on thefacebook.com.
Though some students choose to display potentially embarrassing or incriminating information — perhaps things they would rather their teachers remained unaware of, such as drinking habits and relationships — students and teachers alike seem to feel the inclusion of faculty on thefacebook.com does not pose any sort of privacy issues.
“I don’t want to know anything about the private lives of my students, so I’ve only looked at profiles of students who ‘friend’ me,” Cross said. “And these profiles, so far anyway, aren’t at all private.”
Maya Shankar ’07, who is friends with Cross on the site and has posted on his “wall” — a profile’s message board — said that she finds Cross’ presence on the site amusing.
“And I don’t see any privacy issues,” Shankar said. “I have respect for Yale professors. I’m sure they have better things to do than look around thefacebook.com.”
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