There was a debate going on recently over at The Economist, and the pro-social-networking side won. For parents or anyone interested in social networking's benefits and not just its risks, let me zoom you in on a very meaty discussion, starting with points from the Economist debate's opening arguments, both pro and con (not answers, not just good food for thought): From Prof. Michael Bugeja at Iowa State University: "Facebook or MySpace are programmed for revenue generation, especially the vending of marketing data and the advertising base that can be established because of that data. To do so, those networks rely on technology developed by military (to surveil) and industry (to sell). The fact that both happen simultaneously is no fluke because the programming is designed to amass psychographics on users too busy depicting each other like products to notice the surveillance…. Social networks advertise access to this diverse world while simultaneously confining users to affinity groups so as to sell, sell, sell."
From Ewan McIntosh, Scotland national education technology adviser: "In Scotland, I've been fortunate to work with thousands of school children and hundreds of teachers, creating mini social networks based around a rather traditional 'social object': the classroom. Students have been empowered to publish not just their best work, but the many drafts it takes to get there. They've received feedback from 'real' people outside school and, surprisingly often, the occasional expert has paid a visit…. Importantly, they've received more communication, feedback and interest from the one group they value most: their parents."
US social media researcher danah boyd wrote a blog post about the debate, saying she's frustrated with both the debaters' opening arguments, giving her reasons and making this central point: "In their current incarnation, social network sites … should not be integrated directly into the classroom. That said, they provide youth with a valuable networked public space to gather with their peers."
I don't think these three experts disagree, actually. My takeaway is that MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, etc. themselves – with their user-psychographic aggregation and commercial goals and with their users' purely social goals – don't belong in the classroom, but none of the arguments seem to rule out the educational "social networking" US teacher Vicki Davis has adapted for her Flat Classroom Project, which turns classrooms in multiple countries – 3 across the US and 4 classrooms in China, Austria, Australia, and Qatar – into their own learning social network. Don't miss Vicki's detailed description in her comment at the bottom of danah's blog page. Parents and educators alike would find the Flat Classroom Project (the name a take-off from author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat) an inspiration – see this blog post from Vicki's co-founder Julie Lindsay in Qatar, which includes an email exchange with Tom Friedman. For the perspective of young social networkers themselves, see this interesting blog post from UK tech educator Terry Freedman.
* Here's teacher Sue Waters on why educators need to understand social networking and what about it should be taught in schools: "We need to teach people about SNet-iquette (Social Network ettiquette), and the positive and negative effects of their online 'behaviour' and how they are creating an online 'digital footprint.' I believe educational institutions should be 'leading the way' in educating people about these things. Therefore, by encouraging staff and students to use these sites as educational tools, we are encouraging the conversations necessary for people to work out what is, and what is not, appropriate in an online environment."