Technology and the Public/Private Divide

In the Metro section of the October 10, 2006 New York Times, an article appeared about a police investigation into the case of a Brooklyn man named Michael Sandy, who was hit by a car after two men pushed him onto the Belt Parkway near Sheepshead Bay. The article featured a screenshot of Mr. Sandy’s Friendster homepage, and summarized information about him gleaned from the site.

Sandy Friendster
Michael Sandy’s Friendster page as it appeared on page B6 of the New York Times on October 10, 2006.
(Sinister technology-related update to this case here, Times subscription required).

While I know from conversations with real live journalists that they often use resources like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook in their research and reporting, this was the first instance in which I’ve seen an actual reproduction of a page from such a site in a newspaper (though I admittedly haven’t been looking too hard for it). If users didn’t realize how “public” these public sites really are, the Old Gray Lady’s screen grab should make it perfectly clear. (for a related post, see Kate Moss’s “Excuse me sir, but your online persona is showing.”

The relationship between technology and the question of what’s public and private has come up recently in our conversations about how to stimulate blog usage within the Baruch community. When BCTC rolls out its Movable Type blogging package, all Baruch blogs will come equipped with a disclaimer that indemnifies the college against the worst efforts of community users. What’s not clear yet is whether these blogs will be open to the public, restricted to the Baruch community, or restricted to a group determined by the blog’s administrator.

I feel strongly that course blogs should be seen initially only as an extension of the classroom for the use of participants in the class, and that they should be closed off from the public unless the community they immediately serve wants them to be open. A learning community–faculty and students–should be able to take advantage of the ease of information transfer afforded by new technologies without worrying about who’s watching (tenure committees, parents, and intellectually property attorneys come to mind!). At the same time, we are trying to study how course blogs are being used across academia, and we are finding that our access to them is frustrated by the very philosophy we embrace.

The solution, it would seem, is some combination of public/private sections in a course blog, where only collectively approved content goes out over the airwaves. Ultimately at Baruch we hope to build a community of faculty who can share their blogging experiences with and learn from one another. Whatever happens, though, users—faculty and students—should be educated about the implications of their choices and should know who, potentially, has access to any work they put up on a server.

The BLSCI’s Blogging Series

Do universities lead, or do they follow? Well, clearly, the answer is “both.” When it comes to weblogs, universities have been gradually climbing on the bandwagon over the past few years. By now, blogging is no longer “hot,” in the way that things “here to stay” cool down as they become ingrained into a society. Blogging has clearly made its biggest splash in the realm of journalism, mostly via partisan news blogs and the attempts of the more staid media institutions to acclimate themselves to the new ways that readers have learned to read and to look. Of course, there are important implications for the Fourth Estate (hands wrung about it here).

What’s yet to be determined, though, is the range of directions blogging will go (Vlogging is one definite; integration with social networking sites is another). As is normally the case, colleges and universities will lead– it’s up to them to really think about and experiment around this question, and we may be reaching a “tipping point” in that process. More and more universities are making blogging services available to their communities of faculty, staff, and students. These blogs are being used in a variety of ways, from the instructional to the communal to the entreprenuerial to the personal. This process has not yet been studied or reported upon in any great detail, as far as I know (well, there’s this). Universities will be doing that, too.

Locally, Baruch College will be rolling out its own blogging service using Movable Type this Fall, and the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute is currently supporting faculty who are interested in learning a little or a lot about the medium.

The promise of blogging for teaching is, of course, in the ease and variety of communication the medium allows. Given the scalability of weblogs and their speed of information exchange, their implications for teaching are profound. In an era where students seem to be doing less and less writing in their classes, course weblogs are a potential curative. They offer faculty a way to extend their classrooms and diversify their interactions with students. If used well, blogs can aid the transfer of textual, visual, and technological literacy, and also provide students with regular outlets for expression. Such tools, if used with discipline, can only bolster liberal education.

Weblogging in higher education has already been discussed on CAC.OPHONY in great detail, thanks to efforts of Kate, Deborah, Jill, and Mikhail. Let’s bring it back up to the top, and see what type of conversation we can generate. What, then, are productive weblog projects for courses, beyond what have already been discussed? What can universities do to get the most out of the weblogs they support? The Institute will be thinking about and reporting on these questions over the coming academic year. We’d be interested in hearing from any visitors who have strong thoughts, examples to share, or probing questions on the matter.