Too much information?

shredded paper
photo by Dave Bleasdale

The Logins for Life project proposes allowing the use of social networking tools and other third party applications to register with the University of Kent website – in order to request a prospectus for instance. The School of Computing have also developed a linking tool which will allow a member of the university to associate a Kent IT account with certain third party applications thus allowing access to some restricted resources without always having to present Kent IT credentials. Note that so far in this article, as in many of the reports produced in connection with the project, I use the phrase ‘social networking tools and other third party applications.’ But if I can be candid for a moment, let’s admit that currently for the vast majority of Kent’s users that is going to mean just one thing – Facebook. With over half a billion users worldwide Facebook is everywhere. What percentage of users arriving at the website of any UK or US higher education institution will not have a Facebook account? I would guess less than ten per cent. Considerably less than ten per cent.

It may also be that a very high percentage will also have an OpenID – if they have a Google or Yahoo account they will get one by default – but how many will even know this let alone use it?

In a survey of current students carried out by the Logins for Life team in the summer and autumn of 2010, we discovered that 35% of respondents spent more than 5 hours a week on Facebook. Amongst the autumn 2010 intake of new students less than 2% claimed never to use Facebook.

So if Kent is ‘encouraging’ the use of Facebook it makes no difference does it? As most of our students have got it already.

Well I am not so sure on this point. At very least I think we have to accept that we are endorsing Facebook if not actually encouraging it. Though I am not, as yet, saying this is a bad thing! We are clearly not advocating that the university ever reaches a place where a student is forced to have a Facebook account but if we offer easier methods of access through Facebook and a large percentage of students use this method then it will have its own momentum.

If we make Facebook a powerful tool that is available to students – making it easier for them to log on, creating and supporting ‘official’ university pages, putting Facebook Share buttons on our website – many would argue we are encouraging its use. Some schools at Kent now ‘officially’ state that they use Facebook and Twitter for official announcements, though not exclusively of course, and this makes a lot of sense. During the recent bad weather Twitter and Facebook were a very good place to look for ‘instant’ updates on what was happening on campus. Some of these feeds were supplied officially by staff and some, on an ad-hoc basis by helpful students and staff in an unofficial capacity. The University of Kent like many other HEIs has a Facebook page and we know prospective and current students find it useful. We feature Facebook Like buttons on some of our blogs.

So is this wrong? I don’t think so but I do think we have an obligation to make sure our users know there are alternatives that do not involve social networking applications. I also think our students need to be made aware of the privacy issues involved in using applications like Facebook and just how much data is gathered on their activities.

screen shot from Facebook

Universities are not alone in embracing Facebook, Twitter et al. Government websites feature ‘Follow Us on Facebook’ and ‘Bookmark Us on Facebook’ links. The NHS goes one step further – their advice pages contain ‘Facebook Like’ buttons. If you are so inclined you can visit the NHS advice page on Smelly Feet and click the Facebook Like button. Facebook will then tell your friends, via your profile page, that you ‘like Smelly Feet at’ There are worse afflictions you could choose too. This is where things start to get a bit murky. You might think no-one in their right mind would click the Facebook Like button on such a page but in the wonderful world of Web 2.0 we are used to giving feedback. What if a visitor thought they were just helping with a ‘I found this page useful’ type input? If you have visited the gender disphoria or the STI help pages, even out of curiosity you may not want all your Facebook friends to know this. Smelly feet might be not so serious and a little bit funny but you can see where I am going with this – and it’s not funny at all.

But it’s OK as long as you don’t click the button, right? Well not exactly. Even if all you do is visit the webpage, if it has a Facebook Like button on it, and you have not logged out of the application, Facebook will receive notice that you have done so. Currently Facebook say this data is anonymised and they do not sell data to advertisers in a form which could identify an individual. Still feels a little uncomfortable.

None of this will not be news to those of us who work in IT related areas but how aware are our students of the trail they leave as they surf the net and what that data might end up being used for? We have a duty to inform our users not only of the advantages of using applications like Facebook but also what the unintended consequences might be too.