Who's running your Class of 2013 Facebook groups?
Who's running your Class of 2013 Facebook groups?
…have you checked lately? Because they might not be who you think they are.
The “Class of 20XX” Facebook group phenomenon is hardly new or surprising. Prospective students want to connect with their future classmates to ask questions, make friends and get a feel for what their university experience is going to be like, and Facebook is their social platform of choice. While a handful of universities set up their own Facebook groups for incoming students each year and help guide the conversation, most are “free range” -- created by new students, for new students. Over the past two years, student-made groups for new Dalhousie students have boasted around 1,000 members and created far more interaction than any other Dalhousie-related group on Facebook -- almost 4,000 wall postings and 300 unique discussion topics between them, all without Dalhousie staff getting involved.
If you saw this trend as an opportunity, you weren’t the only one. In December 2008, several American schools realized that marketing companies were ‘squatting’ on “Class of 2013” Facebook groups for their institutions. By positioning each group as THE definitive group for incoming students, these companies were hoping to gain access to a contact list of students they could message about products, events and services. Two companies set up groups for over 350 American schools.
After staff at these schools began responding to a blog post and shedding some light on the matter, the marketing companies agreed to hand over control of the groups to the students who had joined them. Several groups were also removed outright as they violated Facebook’s terms of service. During this fiasco, I contacted representatives at both of those companies, each claiming that they had not set up groups for Dalhousie at that time.
This whole situation sparked an online debate about the role of universities in these groups – should we manage them, supervise them, monitor them? My take has always been that allowing our students, faculty, staff and alumni to organize themselves on Facebook is essential, especially when our own website can't provide them the same opportunities. That said, we also have a responsibility to make sure that our name and our brand elements such as our logo are not being used to mislead our audiences or misrepresent our institution. While we can’t police everything that happens online – nor would we want to – there is still a line that, when crossed, requires our intervention.
(For more on the U.S. incidents, check out this blog post from the Chronicle for Higher Education.)
Last month, I noticed a spike in membership on two Dalhousie “Class of 2013” groups (likely timed with admission letters being sent out). Upon inspection, it was clear that these groups were set up by companies, not students – their language was calculated, they shared almost identical words and phrases, and none of the administrators belonged to a high school network. What concerned us most was that they were both using our school logo while also claiming to be “the official 2013 group” for Dalhousie. That combination crossed a line, for us. They weren’t just trying to become the most popular group this year – they were misleading students to do so.
After contacting the administrator of one group, the logo and references to Dalhousie were removed. The admin of the second group – which at last count had over 200 members and 100 wall posts – did not respond to our request. The prospect of shutting down that discussion was not something we took lightly, but we couldn’t sit by and let our identity be used to mislead students. We had our lawyers contact Facebook, and their staff determined that the group was violating the social network’s terms of service and had it removed.
I take two lessons from this experience. First, as both individuals and organizations get savvier in the social media realm, our responsibility to monitor and protect our identity online is only going to grow. Every university has to make its own decisions as to when to take action, but the use of a school’s identity to mislead prospective students into a marketer’s channel is a serious concern that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Second, given that students clearly want to connect with one another prior to arriving on campus, universities need to ask whether outsourcing this sort of networking entirely to the digital free market is appropriate. Does a university have a responsibility to provide an institution-sponsored location for this to take place – on Facebook or otherwise – or should schools be content to leave such things to the wild and stay out of the conversation? I’ve spent a good week or two pondering that question for our own purposes here at Dal and I’m still not entirely sure on the answer, but I’d be curious to know what other schools think.
One last note. There is once again a Dalhousie Class of 2013 group on Facebook that’s growing in size, this one started by a student. I contacted the admin asking if he’d be interested in putting a link to our official Facebook Page in their description – which he was – and he told me something interesting: since starting the group a week ago, he’s already been approached by marketing companies offering him concert tickets and other freebies if he would set them up as admins on the group. Clearly, companies are desperate to get access to these contact lists and aren’t above offering bribes behind-the-scenes to acquire it. The student declined, in case you’re curious.