UW students object to staff looking them at their Facebook pages

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There’s an interesting article by Kate Rothgeb in last Wednesdays issue of the Daily, the University of Washington’s student newspaper.

Students have accused members of Housing and Food Services (HFS) of going on Facebook and discovering pictures of resident advisers with cups in their hands. HFS staff assumed they were drinking alcohol and used that as evidence against them, said Hansee Hall resident John Stevens.

As a result, the Student Senate is calling for the university to let them know how students’ online presences will be used.

The resolution requests staff and administrators to tell students how online social networks will be used “so students know what to expect,” McCuin said. It also aims to protect admissions and awarding of scholarships.

If an administrator or admissions counselor is going to use online social networks to see what a student is involved in, students have a right to know what is being used against them, said senator Sam Al-Khoury.

There’s a really interesting dynamic at work here. Students are living large parts of their lives in public on social networks like Facebook and MySpace, but largely assuming that it’s only their peers who will be looking at those sites.

But what do you expect if you belong to a group with a name like I’m Not Going To Lie, I’m Completely Wasted In My Face Book Pic…?

The students here are trying to paint this as a free speech issue, but that doesn’t quite seem like the heart of the issue to me. I think it’s actually more of an authorization and access control issue on the social networks. People using the networks assume that the use of the network is limited to their peers, without stopping to worry how that is defined or enforced.

Facebook, for example, limits accounts to people who have email addresses in the .edu space. While that includes most students, it also includes all faculty and staff of educational institutions, as well as alumni, donors, friends of the institution, etc.

This is all part of us learning how to live in the new social reality created by technology. It’s a fascinating ride.

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