campus (dis)engagement: student organizations and facebook.

We hear much about the generation in college now being digital natives, readily and easily negotiating the Web world. But in an earlier freshman focus group, I learned students think of Facebook as a method to connect more than a information tool. Taking this one step further, I decided to research how student organizations at SUNY Oswego use Facebook as a method of communication. While 64.4% percent of our registered organizations (94 of 146) had an official Facebook presence of some type, the vast majority:

- Don’t use it often.
- Don’t use it to engage.

The 94 organizations had a total of 101 presences I counted as official, some with both pages and groups, three posing as a personal account in addition to groups and/pages. The 101 also included 89 groups and nine pages. I used the term connections as a cross-type term to define either a) members of a group, b) fans of a page or c) friends of a personal account.

Using that rubric, I found the average connections for each presence to be 98.7. But this is slightly misleading, modified way up by one personal account, a media outlet posing as a person with a whopping 1,034 connections (by comparison, the second-highest was Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, with 551 members in its group). Take away that anomaly, and the average Facebook presence had 89.35 connections. Highest connections were among Greek organizations (which have more formalized and selective membership) and media outlets, for which communication is an inherent imperative. The majority of presences (70) had 100 or less connections, while only 11 had 200 or more connections.

Most striking was the lack of engagement among the groups and pages (the personal accounts were very engaged, although Facebook frowns upon fictional individuals). Discarding the 11 private groups (mostly Greek organizations), out of the 90 public presences of our registered student organizations, 27 of them — 30 percent — made 1 or less Wall or other updates in the past year (since 12/1/08).

Nine of them (10 percent) never made an update of any kind — ever — while 14 had made one update total, eight made just two updates during their existence. Thus more than one-third (31) made two or less communications during their complete existence. Of the 90 public, only 37 had done at least one update within the past month, 55 within the past semester, 68 within the past 12 months. Students obviously lead busy lives, and this is not an indictment of their habits as much as pointing out a missed opportunity.

The level of organization-to-user engagement appeared almost universally low. I only found one (Rainbow Alliance) with recent evidence of answering Wall questions on a timely basis. Some other Walls consisted entirely of questions from members with absolutely no responses. None! Most common were groups using their Wall chiefly as a one-way communication tool: announcing special events, results of board elections, upcoming meetings. Often orgs began the academic year with the best of intentions, but updates soon abated. Only around 10 percent of organizations opted to create Facebook events or post photo galleries — among the best ways of creating engagement among connections.

Conclusions: While this only provides quantitative data (summarized and contextualized in this document), and qualitative information in the form of student interviews would shed more light, I draw three preliminary conclusions:

1. Abandonment runs rampant. This study followed a Twitter conversation on data rot on institutional Web pages as some entities, including student groups, moved their presence to Facebook. Yet stale pages and outdated information run rampant on Facebook as well. In amassing data, I chose to discard older versions of organizations’ official groups in favor of more current ones. I decided doing so was most fair to engagement measures and membership totals (which could wane toward a more current group). Not an ideal solution, but it indicates abandonment rates even higher than stated measures.

2. Interface is underutilized. One of Facebook’s greatest advantages remains media-rich engagement tools like events, photos, videos and discussion forums. It proved very rare to find organizations posting even the most rudimentary group photos or creating Facebook events, let alone uploading videos or inviting conversations on Walls or in forums. The vast majority used the Facebook Wall mainly for simple announcements.

3. A learning curve remains from connecting to engaging. Our students have mastered the art of using Facebook on a personal level to make connections and carry out conversations. So why are student organization presences so rarely updated and engaging? I think partly it comes back to my initial finding with freshmen that they think of social media as first and foremost a connector, and less so a tool. I’m one of the few people I know who regularly speaks to student groups about using social media as a promotional/marketing avenue, and reactions indicate this idea represents a bit of a paradigm shift. Perhaps most student organizations are still feeling out the process of changing hats to using it for more official communication. In fairness to the students, their results are not atypical of global use: Most businesses, non-profits and other entities are nowhere near mastering the use of social media for engagement.

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12 responses to “campus (dis)engagement: student organizations and facebook.

  1. The problem is, the issues you describe are not the least bit unique to Facebook. The reason I recommend student groups use Facebook (or Ning) is because of the very issues you state. If I set up a site for a student group on our domain, it will inevitably become unused and abandoned within a year, they won’t update me when their web editor needs changed, and they’ll flat out forget they have it. At least by moving them to Facebook, the burden has been put more on them to keep up, and if they fall out of it, we don’t have the old clutter on our site.

  2. I think that part of the problem is that “Groups” and “Pages” are some of the worst implemented features on facebook. They don’t notify the administrators of new content posted, they don’t allow you to easily broadcast messages to the group in a way that you are sure to receive… they are still a pull technology instead of a push. I don’t count information in facebook feeds as a guaranteed hit to my page “fans”; because even if it makes it in to their busy feed, it may not be seen or internalized.

    In my experience, Student Groups are still heavily organized around listservs because they guarantee dissemination of the information to all group members.

    My fraternity (who I still advise on technological issue) has even gone so far as to create a “phone-tree” listserv that blasts SMS messages to all the membership, giving them the ability to respond immediately to any new information without worrying who has a smartphone and will be able to receive the e-mail.

    I don’t think it’s a shortcoming of the students for not using a tool to engage their peers, but rather it’s a shortfall of the tool itself, for not being that great at the job it’s designed for.

  3. insidetimshead

    MICHAEL: An excellent point. This started from a conversation with Lane and Rachel about how some campus entities had stopped working on their Web pages and moved activities to Facebook. In a way, it’s just shifting the location of data rot. As you say, dealing with it on the official Web site, especially if there’s abandonment, is a real pain. Of course, the students benefit if whatever/wherever their presence, it’s well-maintained and engaging.

    CLARK: The lack of notification is, indeed, a drawback of the medium. But if students are going to create a page or group, and never maintain it, this may be as bad as, or worse then, putting something up at all. Especially examples where commenters are asking for information and seeing no reply, it makes the group appear unresponsive. Why not have a rotation of officers check the page every day, or if difficult, every few days? Questions from April 2008 that a group has never answered doesn’t look good at all. In any effort in life, commitment is important, and this includes whatever communication tools one chooses to use.

  4. Ron

    I think most of these folks stay in contact so much on their own, that having web sites and such always seemed a bit redundant to me. But that’s how things rolled before and now that’s just extended to Facebook.

    What you said about the assumption that every kid today is a digital native being wrong is dead on.

    I think there’s probably a teaching moment in there someplace, but it’s really related to how students communicate and it probably needs to become part of a larger conversation prior to college.

  5. As Fienen mentioned, the minute someone maintaining a website graduates, a site becomes stagnate because there is no one left with the knowledge to update it. The advantage of a Facebook page is that the administrator doesn’t have to know anything about code in order to produce content.

    I was recently at a College where the clubs and organizations voiced the need for a stronger online presence. Whether it’s an institutionally hosted site or a Facebook Page, it seems these organizations are trying to use tools that don’t fully meet their needs. How many of them even know that a Facebook Page allows discussions? As Clark mentioned, there’s no notification if they were to start something which is a downfall of the Page. There’s also a chance they don’t want internal operations from their organizations out there for the public to see.

    Do you think it could be useful for organizations using tools like Ning to connect members and allow them to develop discussions and post links to documents online?

  6. insidetimshead

    RON: Indeed. I’ve long disagreed with generational stereotypes on every level. Every cohort is diverse in every way. But I was a little surprised to see less of what I’d call “Facebook power users” in the mix because of how often and how well college students use social media on a personal level. But I continue to believe that we can learn as much from students as they can learn from us.

    KATI: I forgot (sorry) whom at Stamats SIM Tech discussed the idea of a “shadow reality” … the reality that is any brand’s official image as well as what is said about it in social media. Which leads to the quasiphilosophical question: Are self-run student clubs, in their own way, extensions and ambassadors for your college? Especially when we see prospective students asking questions on group sites (and, unfortunately, receive no response)? Whatever one’s position, I always unequivocally say that *anything* which better connects people where they can benefit in some way is a good thing.

  7. Katie

    Tim,

    I’ve been interested in investigating my campus’ usage of Facebook. Any way you can send me the details of how you collected the data or any other data from the study? kajohnson@csufresno.edu or @katieajohnson

  8. insidetimshead

    KATIE: Check your inbox!

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